The Trained Porpoises
U.S. Department of Commerce
A Congressman, saying that with the formation of NOAA, the Commerce Department would be faced with the problem of porpoises being caught in the tuna nets, suggested that I meet with a scientist who had the solution. At the time, I knew nothing at all about the problem, or even that there was one. Some years later, I did become heavily involved in the subject. However, in 1970, this was completely new to me. Of course, I agreed to meet with the gentleman.
I am not at all certain that the man was, in fact, a “scientist”. As I recall, he was in the business of training animals for aquatic shows. In any event, he said that tuna fishermen set their large nets around porpoise, since tuna often swam under them. He described what was known as “purse-seining”. To catch an entire school of tuna, the tuna boat would lay down a large, perhaps one-quarter mile, encircling net that was then pulled together on bottom and top, to look like a gigantic purse. The entire net, with all of its contents, would then be pulled on board the tuna boat. As a result, and contrary to the intent of the fishermen, large numbers of porpoise were being killed. He said that the porpoise, while intelligent, had no idea of how to save themselves when the net was being pulled together. He proposed that each tuna boat carry two porpoises, already trained to jump over the net as it was being closed. These trained porpoises would be lowered into the net area and then would, by example, lead the other porpoises to safety.
What the gentleman wanted was federal financial support for his training and supplying of these specially trained porpoises. I had no idea as to the merits of his proposal. Fortunately for me, I had also no authority over NOAA funding so that I could gracefully and truthfully say that I would certainly see that his proposal received the attention of the as yet unnamed NOAA Administrator. With that, our meeting ended.
At the appropriate time, I did honor my commitment. Several days later, a reply came from those who were dealing with the tuna-porpoise matter. First of all, the porpoises the man trained on the East Coast were an entirely different species from those of the Pacific, so that there was no possibility that an association would be made when the tuna nets was being set. While those trained porpoise might jump out of the net, back in and out again, and again, the native porpoise would not get the message. Secondly, when that net was being closed, all Hell was going on among the animals inside. There were sharks, there was pure panic. And in the open ocean, there were often huge waves. Logic could not prevail. Thirdly, while someone would be taking care of the two trained porpoises on the way to the first fishing area, what was the likelihood of their ever returning to the tuna boat after they were set free into the net? Fourthly,….well, the message was abundantly clear.
In some mysterious way, this message was also conveyed to the Congressman who had called me. I never heard from him again.
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