“I saw Voyage of the Mimi and said to myself, ‘Yep, that’s it. That’s what I want to do,’” Aly Fleming told me recently.
She was in second grade when she made the decision to become a marine biologist after watching the television series that chronicled scientists tracking whales off the coast of Massachusetts. “I was enamored with the animals and the lifestyle.”
While many of her classmates likely said the same thing back then, Aly stuck with it. She enrolled in a marine research program for high schoolers on a sailboat off of Cape Cod, volunteered as a whale-watching guide for the New England Aquarium, and used data collected over many years of whale watches for an independent research project in college.
Wanting to see more of the world, she volunteered for a bottlenose dolphin research project in New Zealand while working as a nanny to pay her way. Throughout, her opportunities didn’t appear out of thin air, she had to go looking for them on email lists, websites, and by knocking on teachers’ doors. In the end it was all worth it. Twenty years after first seeing Mimi, Aly was accepted as a Ph.D. student in San Diego to study whale populations.
Aly and I started grad school at SIO in 2007 and quickly bonded over our east coast roots—hers in Massachusetts and mine in Vermont. In addition to our normal coursework, we took classes in marine policy and history as students in the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, which is housed within SIO. Both of us were drawn to the center because through its classes and discussion groups we learned how scientific findings get put into action, which in turn helped us understand how we can help protect and restore marine life.
Thanks in part to this interdisciplinary training, Aly’s studies took an unexpected detour that brought her back to where it all began. She was asked to write a scientific report on humpback whales—the very same species she saw on Mimi and later in person in the waters off of Massachusetts.
Her task was to compile all the available data on how many of the species exist on the planet today, a tough job given that the oceans are massive and the animals travel great distances while hidden below the sea.
The findings of her report—collected from interviews of researchers and reading pages and pages of scientific papers—would inform a panel of experts who would make a recommendation to the government to answer a single question: should humpback whales still be considered an endangered species?
“I was nervous about it in the beginning,” Aly told me. “I was afraid that what I found could lead to reducing their level of protection.” Her life’s work was devoted to protecting whales and she felt an emotional tie to them, but as a scientist her report would be based on the available science, and the science alone.
Being ‘endangered’ means that a species is near extinction, and being officially listed as such means that the government must pursue a plan to help the species recover. Stopping whaling has allowed humpback whales to rebound from precariously low numbers during the 1960s.
Still, it remains unclear whether the number alive today is comparable to how many there were before whaling began, and Aly knew this would make it difficult to assess just how well the species has recovered.
In the ensuing months she read thousands of pages of scientific papers and traveled the country to talk with researchers. Her final 206-page document, which she wrote with a collaborator, Dr. Jennifer Jackson, was passed on to the experts who deliberated and made a recommendation to the government.
Despite her early reservations, Aly saw a silver lining emerge: being removed from the endangered species list isn’t necessarily a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact. If the humpback whale truly is no longer on the brink of extinction then we as people have successfully allowed them to bounce back, at least to a certain extent.
“The endangered species list shouldn’t be a designation of doom where species are listed until they disappear,” she says. “If we want it to be a tool to help animals survive then we have to be able to say when we’ve succeeded for one species, which will then let us work harder for other species that are in worse shape.”
As we learned a few years ago in our marine policy class, even if humpback whales are taken off the list there are still laws in place to protect them, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bars people from harassing, killing or getting too close to any marine mammal.
In the end, Aly hopes that the best decision will be made, not only for the protection of the whales, but also for many other organisms that face the threat of extinction every day.
So, what is the government’s decision? Well, it hasn’t been made yet. But we will all know soon enough as they will decide within the next year, so stay tuned.