Jon Lien is a world renowned whale researcher and conservationist who passed away April 15, 2010 at the age of 71. I had the pleasure of working with Jon as a graduate student in the summers of 1990 and 1991, and was saddened to hear recently of his passing.
Lien saved hundreds of whales from fishing gear, the whales having followed the fish as they preyed on the same fish being sought by the Newfoundland fishermen. Jon often commented that it was not uncommon for the naive young whales to get caught in the gear, with their mothers immediately getting caught after in their attempt to retrieve their young.
Jon understood the complexity of both the fishermen and whales seeking a common resource, the risk of injury or death to the whale, the damage the entrapped whales could do to the fishermen’s gear, and the financial ruin this damage caused for the fishermen who lost a season of fishing and the prospect of replacing costly gear. To help remedy these conflicts Jon founded the Whale Research Group where he trained students and developed whale rescue techniques that have been used worldwide. These techniques minimized damage to the fishing gear, while freeing the stressed whale. Jon also developed alarms that were placed on the corners of the fishing gear that would emit a metal ping to warn the whales that the gear was there. I spent hours observing the avoidance of the gear by the whales as a part of this research.
Jon would often times drive hours to small outport communities, followed by long zodiac rides to the entrapment to do his work. I was on one trip where we drove for two hours to the community, followed by a two hour boat trip to the whale. After a successful release, Jon and his assistant Wayne, helped the fishermen pull in their catch, which was followed by a cup of coffee and bite to eat at the fisherman’s home.
This had not always been the case, as the fishermen thought of whales as nothing more than problematic, being a competitor of the reduced stocks of fish and destroyer of their private property. It was easier to kill the whale and have them stop thrashing, than try to get them out safely.
Jon’s gift of communication, his good nature, his hard work, and his love for the whales, the fishery, and the people of his Newfoundland and Labrador community allowed him to become trusted by the fishermen, and well respected by the fishing community and the Candadian government. He received the Order of Canada and the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador as well as countless other accomodations, formal and informal, for his advocacy of both whales and fishermen. He had strong words against Greenpeace tactics and helped initiate a new generation of fisheries researchers who learned to work with fishermen rather than work around them.