Great auk talk highlights plight of overfishing

Nov 5, 2017

At 60 years old, Wareham’s Dick Wheeler kayaked 1,500 miles along the North Atlantic coast, tracing the migration route of the great auk, a bird that was hunted to extinction. Wheeler believes the species’ fate provides a warning for current and future generations.

“I hope we can learn from our old mistakes,” Wheeler says in the PBS documentary “Haunted Cry of a Long Gone Bird.” “That’s why the great auk must keep whispering in my ear.”

On Saturday, the Wareham Land Trust aired the film to a crowd of 25 people. Afterwards Wheeler, now 86, answered questions about his journey.

Wheeler made the trip in 1991 over the course of 130 days, driven by a desire to raise awareness for overfishing and other environmental concerns in the Atlantic. For his efforts, he was named a “Hero for the Planet” by Time Magazine in 1998.

In the film, Wheeler is seen paddling along fishing ports small and large along the coasts of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Maine before ending the trip in Buzzards Bay.

He explores issues facing independent fisherman who are dealing with diminished catches. He also looks at the massive trawlers that “can vacuum the ocean floor like a rug.”

Attached to the front of his kayak is a small, wooden carving of a great auk head. He noted that the flightless birds were excellent swimmers, making the long journey south in search of food.

In the 1800s, the bird, valued as a food source, was hunted to extinction. Wheeler said on Saturday more species could follow the great auk into extinction of overfishing isn’t curbed.

“I’m pretty bitter over it,” he said. “I can’t hide that fact. We have a fatally flawed relationship with the ocean. Not just the ocean, other ecosystems, too.”

When asked if anything had changed in the fishing industry since the time he made his trip, Wheeler noted that fishing quotas and better regulations have been put in place, but he called them short term solutions.

Wheeler said hunters in the 1800s believed the great auk was an inexhaustible resource at one time, too.

"The great auk once existed in such great quantities that people thought they would always be there," he said.