Sound Off: I broke the law on whale teeth

  • Saturday, May 19, 2007 11:00am
  • Opinion

You recently printed an article (News-Times, April 28) about my pleading guilty on one count that I violated a Marina Mammal, Endangered Species and Lacey Act Violation. These violations all stem from my purchasing sperm whale teeth from an antique dealer in Philadelphia and selling them to a scrimshaw dealer in Hawaii.

I did not comment last year when the story was first reported. My case was filed under seal while I was assisting the U.S. government and Scotland Yard in building a case against a man in England responsible for the smuggling. Because of this and other assistance, the government has offered to speak on my behalf at my time of sentencing.

I have been a maritime and marine museum designer for over 30 years. I have designed an educational public museum on the evolution and biology of whales. I have helped to solicit support for whale research and whale conservation. As director of the museum I educated through exhibits, film and lectures over 250,000 visitors annually.

I suspect that the public’s initial reaction to the charges brought against me is that in some way I harmed an endangered species. This is far from the truth. It may come as a surprise to most of your readers to learn that the sperm whale has never been hunted for its teeth. This is contrary to what many self-serving agencies and activists would like to have you believe. In actuality the sperm whale was hunted for its oils.

In the 19th century, American whalers on long voyages began to engrave or “tattoo” sperm whale teeth with scenes of family, home life, and their adventures at sea. This art form is known as scrimshaw and is one of the few American folk arts.

In 1972, when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, a part of that act regulated the sale of whale teeth. As a result, this part created an inflated market for whale teeth in the U.S., where the folk art of scrimshaw still flourished. To illustrate, prior to the 1972 act, large whale teeth sold in the U.S. for $10 to $15 each. Now they sell for $300 to $500 each. However, they can still be purchased outside of the U.S. for $10 to $15 each. It appears that in trying to save the whale, and not leaving a provision or exception for sperm whale teeth, this portion of the law is destroying an American folk art, encouraging smuggling, and is doing nothing to help save sperm whales.

My actions hurt no person, damaged no property, and harmed no animal. The pre-act teeth (prior 1972) had been brought into this country illegally. I did break the law by buying and selling these teeth in the United States. For this, I have taken complete responsibility and I am truly sorry for my actions.

Lewis Eisenberg

lives in Oak Harbor.

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