Tribute to Jon Lien

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He saved many whales but loved fishermen more

This week, scientist Jon Lien was officially inducted into the Order of Canada, for his pioneering work with the Whale Research Group of Memorial University.

In 1978, when Lien began his work, the relationship between fishermen and whales was touchy at best. Whales frequently became stuck in nets, and either died in the net or destroyed it whilst getting free. Neither prospect was good for the fishermen, and it didn't help the whale either.

Through trial and error, and perhaps exposure to some risk, Lien figured out how to free the whales, while causing minimal damage to the gear. Between 1978 and 1990, he freed nearly 500 trapped whales, and tension between man and mammal was eased somewhat.

With Lien making news this week, I thought it a fitting time to post a profile I wrote about him, which I wrote back in February of 1990 more than 18 years ago for the cover of The Newfoundland Signal. The photo of Lien, which I scanned from newsprint, is from the same article (Lien supplied the photo and couldn't name the photographer).

Meeting and interviewing Lien was one of the highlights of my career. Yes, I have interviewed more famous' people, but few were as interesting or worked in such amazing surroundings as Jon Lien.

The miracle man' when whales and gear collide

The 40-tonne humpback trapped in the net wasn't the problem.

The problem was the whale's chum, which had been hanging about the area and was now dwarfing the small craft with its enormous tail, waving it menacingly to and fro just feet above the boat.

It was scientist Jon Lien's first attempt in 1978 to divorce a whale from a fisherman's net, without estranging the net from its owner.

"It's like they're protecting the one that's trapped," Mr. Lien said, in an interview with The Signal. "He came up to the boat, stuck his tail out of the water and waved it over our heads. It was like, Yes sir, anything you want.' It's pretty intimidating."

But the whale didn't smash the boat to the bottom of Trinity Bay. Seemingly satisfied that the scientist and his breathless cluster of students were a benign presence, it moved off to watch from a distance. They freed the whale which had been tangled in the trap for three months and moved on to free another trapped nearby. In the 12 years since, the 50-year old estimates he has freed nearly 500 trapped whales.

"I wouldn't have believed that. If you had told me (back then) that I was going to work with 500 humpbacks in fishing gear, I would've said, "That's more than half the population!"

Born in South Dakota to parents of Norwegian extraction, Mr. Lien studied psychology, zoology, primates, veterinary medicine and animal sciences at Washington State University, emerging as an animal behaviorist. In graduate school, Mr. Lien worked with chimpanzees, training some for flights into space. The chimps were trained to do specific tasks, he said, to see how weightlessness would affect them in space.

"They were pretty dumb experiments, I think now in retrospect, but at the time we just didn't know."

In 1968 a position for an animal behaviorist opened up at Memorial University and Mr. Lien, having long been a keeper of Newfoundland dogs, decided to come up and see the place.

"Have you ever flown in on a good clear day over Red Cliff, when you get the full sweep of the sea? It's magnificent what an introduction. In doing that, something really clicked I flew home and told my wife, Jeez, we've gotta go there.'"

Mr. Lien didn't encounter his first whale until 1978, when he took his animal behavior class out for a firsthand look at several that had become trapped in ice near Springdale. "I was absolutely fascinated with the accessibility of the animals We don't know a lot about whales and I thought the opportunities provided n Newfoundland were spectacular for studying them."

After freeing those first whales caught in the cod traps in Trinity Bay, Mr. Lien came to realize that whale entrapment was more than an applied problem of animal behavior, it was a Gordian knot of conflicting concerns, pitting the whale's right to eat against the fisherman's right to earn a living. An entrapped humpback can seriously damage or destroy a cod trap causing disastrous downtime during the short inshore season. Humpback whales, on the other hand, were considered an endangered species every individual was important to the population.

"It's very difficult to walk away from that without having some degree of feeling for both the problem animal and the fisherman," he said.

After a meeting in Whitbourne in 1979 with fishermen from all over the island, Mr. Lien formed the Whale Research Group, with several other interested people. And although the group has explored various avenues of research, its main thrust has always been the problem of whales colliding with fishing gear.

"What we were able to show, by studies then, was that the increase in whales inshore was due to a collapse of caplin offshore Because that was so scarce, many of these animals came inshore and fed on spawning caplin.. The power of that model is that it has given us great ability to predict how serious the whale problem is going to be in Newfoundland in any given year."

Prior to launching the Whale Research Group, Mr. Lien estimates that 50 per cent of whales caught in traps died. Today, the mortality rate is down to five per cent. When he started freeing whales in 1978, the average cost of such an accident to the fisherman was $1,500. Today, it's about $300 although the occasional cod trap still gets towed off or destroyed.

In an interview with The Signal, Walter Foote, a retired fisherman in Lamaline, said Mr. Lien is a ""miracle man."

"If anything were to happen to Jon Lien and I hope not you'd never replace him, I don't think." Mr. Foote said one of his three fishermen sons came home one day to report a whale that had become ensnared in the cod trap, set just off the point near the Lamaline lighthouse.

"He was almost in tears," Mr. Foot recalled. "My son, it was unbelievable I phoned Mr. Lien in the morning, about 10 o'clock, and he was here about 2:30 He came here, got in the boat with another gentleman, and my son got into another outboard motorboat. But my son never even got out before he had that whale out of the trap. Well, I said, that's something else And the little boat he was in I wouldn't go within a mile and a half of a whale in that!"

Mr. Foote said the whale was freed with minimal damage just $25 worth of cut rope. If the whale had torn up the cod trap, a new one would have cost as much as $8,000.

In freeing whales from traps, Mr. Lien said it is imperative that the fisherman be involved in the process.

"The first thing we try to do is understand the accident in the fisherman's terms: Is this his best trap? His worst trap? Does he have other traps to haul today? Does he have fish in those? Was this the one that was getting all the fish? Does he care more about time or more about gear?... The co-operation between ourselves and the fishermen is very important. We know a bit about whales and they know a lot about their own fishing gear."

Mr. Lien prefers to work in a rubber dinghy, as wooden boat gunnels bruise the chest when a person reaches overboard in a heaving sea. It is necessary to manoeuvre directly on top the whale a situation they take pains to avoid.

"So we often get in a rubber boat, and I honestly think that's the most terrible thing for the fisherman about the whole process: I'm not gettin' in that goddamn rubber dinghy!'"

Freeing the whale can be a simple or painstaking operation, depending on the severity of the tangle, and priority is placed on saving the fisherman's gear. If a line must be cut, the fisherman is consulted first. On being released, Mr. Lien said, the whales often just float quietly, seemingly oblivious to their freedom. In those cases, he said, he used to ask the fisherman to slap the whale with an oar to wake it up. The fishermen seldom refused.

"They broke so goddamn many paddles on whales that I don't do that anymore."

Mr. Lien said his work has taken him into almost every town in the province, allowing him to tap into another favorite resource: The Newfoundland people. "The nicest thing about working with the whales was getting to know the fishermen, to tell you the truthThat's still the most important thing about being in Newfoundland to me I absolutely adore working with fishermen."

Mr. Lien's occupation has attracted a lot of attention over the years, but he dismisses all the publicity with the wave of a hand.

"It's like being married to a movie star," he laughed. "If you were the spouse of a movie star, you'd have to tolerate a fair amount of attention, I suspect. But it's all because of who you hang out with."

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  • Judy
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Thank you for Geoff Meeker's remembrance of Jon Lien June 17. It's so important to help people embrace historical events and recall persons connected with those times. Jon loved his work, we're thankful that many fishermen respected his comittment.

    Judy Lien and family