Whale rights

Philippa Brakes

What are those things that qualify human beings as having rights? What are the things that qualify an entity as a person? It’s extraordinary, a corporation can be a person and can have rights, and yet there are lots of species that might be able to suffer quite extensively but yet don’t yet have rights.

Philippa Brakes works with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (whales.org) where she leads the ethics programme. She is the co-author of Whales and Dolphins: Cognition, Culture, Conservation and Human Perceptions.

She talks with us about the role of the WDC in advocacy. We talk charismatic megafauna, personhood and the declaration of rights for cetaceans. She says that scientific whaling isn’t. And what is being done about. And we talk about the challenge of marine renewable energy installations.

Very much like us: long lived, slow reproducing mammals that just happen to live in the sea. They have complex social groups…but they’re very different to us too. Their world is usually one of sound, whereas ours is predominantly one of sight.

As an eleven year old we visited a zoo in Thailand and saw an elephant in chains…..and I went on and on about it…eventually my father said, “If you feel so strongly about it, why don’t you write to the King of Thailand” so I did. And that was the beginning of my career of feeling that I needed to represent those who don’t have a voice.

While I’m massively concerned about the conservation and sustainability implications of some of the things that are going on in the modern age, I’m also very concerned about the welfare of some of the individuals.

Individual behaviours have population level effects…but it is not really taken into consideration in conservation models. For socially complex mammals the individual is going to be really important in the future.

The spatial scales of other species who can transmit and communicate with each other across ocean basins…we can’t help but consider things from our own perspective. If you could talk to your friend who was 10, 15, 20 kilometers away, that makes your sense of scale quite different.

Whales and dolphins are not well adapted to life in captivity

If we focus on populations, knowledge rather than genes becomes the currency if it’s influencing fitness

Things are going in the right direction with whaling, but there’s still a lot more to do. They’re quite diminished from 150 years ago, so we need to be looking at protecting their environments better rather than looking at how many we can sustainably remove from populations.

(On a Minke whale from the area targetted by Japan’s whalers being found near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) It’s important that we don’t get into the game of saying “they’re our whales..no they’re our whales we can do with them what we like”. The whales are their own entity, they should be allowed to go about their business unharassed.

The scientific evidence is such that it can be argued that some whale and dolphin species qualify on the basis of personhood.

We rightly have rights for my 4 year old daughter, yet we wouldn’t say here decision making is at the level of qualifying her as upstanding member of our society yet…just because an individual is granted rights doesn’t mean that they have associated responsibility. This comes up as a confusion ‘does that mean that Orcas shouldn’t hunt Hector’s dolphins?’.

Personhood is a legal term based on certain traits – communication, cognition, meta-cognition, all of those aspects – no-one wants to call them people.

The legal recognition qualifies them to not suffer psychologically, or physical trauma for any extended period. The right not to be subject to abuses.

(Am I an activist?). I wouldn’t call myself an activist, I’m an advocate. I’m a scientist who also works in the policy end of the debate.

This is the sixth in the Sustainable Lens #whaleofasummer series recorded during the Biennial Conference of the Marine Mammals Society.

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Author: Samuel Mann

An Associate Professor with a background in both IT and land management, Sam has developed applied IT for regional government, crown research institutes and large organisations. He has taught computing since 1994, at Otago Polytechnic Information Technology since 1997, including five years as Head of Department. Sam has published over 150 conference and journal papers in the fields of augmented experiences; sustainability; and computer education. Sam is responsible for the development of Education for Sustainability at Otago Polytechnic where we are committed to every graduate thinking and acting as a sustainable practitioner

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