Whale Net and Knife: An Economic Meditation

CHERYL LYON – Dr. Jon Lien PhD, known in Newfoundland as “the Whale Man,” has personally rescued some 500 whales from fishing nets. His methods spread worldwide to save thousands more whales.

Most of us likely see this as a heroic act of a human person deeply connected to Nature. And it was. But it was also something else.

Besides his compassionate intent to save whales. Lien also wanted to save the livelihoods of fishing workers. Fish as food and livelihood are deep in Newfoundland culture and economy. Jon Lien’s cuts to a net could be repaired, the net reused. But not so with most fishing gear. Gear is hellishly expensive: one net can cost $8000, a commercial fishing license and boat in the hundreds of thousands. Lost, unrecyclable gear sinks deep, never to be found again. This intersection of ecology and economy is the story of our times.

Exercising our place as top predator in the food chain, humans take life to survive at the same time as we respect and love life. But the global corporate economy has lost the sense of this life-sustaining balance, typified by the practice of  killing a whale only to save a net,  eventually leaving nothing for the ropes to catch (or to extend the analogy, for the soil to grow or the water to nourish.) 

We can confront, manage, embrace or resist this reality, we just can’t escape it (missions to Mars notwithstanding.) Jon Lien did all of those things, living in the agonizing space human space between nourishing life and having to take it in order to be nourished.

He was a bird biologist by profession. Once, when on the ocean recording bird and whale sounds, his own boat unexpectedly encountered a fisherman with a dying humpback whale tangled in his net. Confronting both the situation and his own human frailty, Lien jumped into the water to cut the whale free. Doing so, he also resisted oversimplifying the dilemma by just killing the whale to save the net. In the moment, the word “economy” likely never entered his mind. But later, when asked, he shared that the fisherman had tears running down his face as he hauled up his salvaged net. The man had lost a net earlier that year; a second loss would have bankrupted him.

Lien managed the dire unexpected situation with courage and resourcefulness, knowing his efforts could equally fail or succeed. His resources: a knife and a diving mask. Rough sea bumped boats and whale together dangerously. The whale had to trust that it was about helping, not harpooning. All were managing together.

Jumping into the sea, Jon Lien embraced a lot of things, whether he knew it or not. He embraced danger, the unknown, two other beings in distress, and the best in his own self. In choosing to cut the net to free the whale, he resisted past best practice, the quick, easy solution he tried for both net and whale. He risked even self-preservation for something he believed more important, an action that shows what is needed in our times: to resist money and ease as our highest values, the values of a seductive, wasteful economy that we choose not to see beyond. In the end, this whale died. But from then on, Dr. Lien never stopped rescuing whales and never abandoned the best of his humanness. Update: Sadly,  Dr. John Lien passed away in April, 2010 at his home in Newfoundland.

Credit for this “meditation” goes to playwright Robert Chafe’s play “Between Breaths”, Playwrights Canada Press. Toronto. 2018.

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