Taunton River whale is a call to action

People stare in awe and amazement when they see a whale, and no wonder. These creatures, magnificent in their intelligence and behavior, stand out among the biggest and most beautiful animals on the face of the Earth.

Over the past week, those along the Taunton River in Massachusetts have had the rare and special opportunity to catch glimpses of a young beluga whale swimming many hundreds of miles south of its home waters - the Arctic and sub-Arctic region of the globe, their closest natural habitat being the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The sight of a beluga in southern New England is rare and unusual today, but could quickly become a more frequent occurrence. Climate change is affecting our seas and the creatures that live in them. In some cases the natural food supply for a certain species may shift location, moving to a warmer or cooler spot in the ocean. The animals that rely on them usually follow. Or sometimes a new predator moves into an area seeking a better environment or hunting ground, and the native species flee to a safer place.

A lot is happening in our oceans, and sightings of marine animals out of their accustomed habitats will certainly grow more common. While perhaps caused by climate change, whose potential effects are growing increasingly worrisome, the fact that a beluga is swimming in the Taunton River is a testament to what man can do to clean up and control his environment. Resilience is a term being used to describe efforts for humans to adapt coastal habitation and usage to new realities with regard to a rapidly changing eco and weather system. Resiliency includes new approaches to engineering as well as more aggressive coastal environmental restoration and protection.

Boston Harbor, the Charles River, Narragansett Bay and virtually all rivers and waterways in the Northeast are increasingly clean, thanks to environmental awareness and regulations. In my lifetime there were many places where neither belugas nor humans would swim in the water, but as this visiting beluga demonstrates, today it's "Come on in, the water's fine!"

However, that small victory for the environment doesn't change the more global reality that many ocean creatures are threatened by a wide variety of factors - some of them we can control by reducing pollution and strictly regulating such things as underwater oil drilling, and some we cannot.

Beluga whales are today a threatened species. Mystic Aquarium has made a mission of studying and trying to assist belugas. Our researchers travel annually to the Arctic Sea to observe and collect samples from local beluga pods to understand the environmental stresses affecting them; to see how their immune systems are holding up against pollution; and to gauge how well they are adapting to climate and other oceanic changes.

Likewise, we study the belugas resident at Mystic Aquarium to compare their physical signs with their wild counterparts. This wide-ranging body of research, along with our unique understanding of beluga behavior, has made Mystic Aquarium a center of knowledge about the species, and we feel honor-bound to contribute to their well-being wherever they are.

It is important that we maintain threatened populations in facilities like Mystic Aquarium for research and as ambassadors to the public. We do not want this species to disappear, which is why Mystic Aquarium invests hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to conduct research on how to sustain the beluga population in the wild.

But we need to be proactive rather than reactive about the threat to creatures such as the beluga seen in the Taunton River. That beautiful animal so far from its normal habitat is a reminder that changes are occurring in the ocean environment. The coastline of New England is at risk as tides rise and storms grow more fierce. In recent years we've seen cataclysms such as Superstorm Sandy devastate our neighbors just to the southwest in New York and New Jersey. Normal patterns are changing, and it seems they're changing rapidly.

What can we do? First we must be more aware of our environment and how we're affecting it. The interface between human activities and the oceans, including marine life, is a very delicate one, and we must not abuse it, the way we once abused our rivers and streams.

Resilience is the greatest environmental issue that we must address: How much can we influence the environment before the changes get beyond our control, and the system can't rebound to its natural state?

Mystic Aquarium is already working with communities on long-term resilience efforts and is partnering with many other institutions in New England to help prepare our region for the realities of a new environment.

Let's view this visit from our beluga whale friend in the Taunton River as a sentinel call to action to help save these precious animals, and to remind ourselves of the importance of resilience in the face of changing realities in our too-fragile environment.

Steven M. Coan is the president and CEO of Mystic Aquarium.


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