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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Legal Treatment of Beached Whales

The BBC reports:

The residents of a town on Canada's Newfoundland island fear a blue whale carcass that washed up on its boardwalk last week could explode at any time. 
The 25m (81ft) whale on Trout River's rocky beach is one of several believed to have died in heavy ice weeks ago. 
Town Clerk Emily Butler says the body is bloated with methane gas caused by decomposition and will soon reek, regardless of whether it explodes. 
Local and federal authorities disagree which are responsible for its disposal.
Wondering what the stakes are in this case, I turned to the internet and found this (warning, graphic) video of an exploding whale. It would seem that the bloated whale on the shore by Trout River poses a real threat.

On reading this story, my thoughts turned immediately to the (fortunately fictional) case of Tinrib, Rumble, and Others v. The King and Queen or the "Fish Royal" case from A.P. Herbert's Uncommon Law. In that case, the inhabitants of Pudding Magna, a small town, bring a lawsuit in an attempt to prompt the Crown to remove the body of a whale which has washed up on the shores of the town. The whale was "Fish Royal" and was therefore the property of the King, so the people of the town turned to the Crown to oversee the removal of the whale.

The case describes the Crown's elusive behavior, noting that it punted at the suggestion of using the whale as a military target, and was leery of destroying the whale with explosives because it would be using public resources to destroy the government's own property. At the end of the case, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries refuses to handle the matter because the whale is a mammal and not a fish. At that point, the townspeople have all left, due to the overwhelming stench of the decomposing whale.

While Herbert's Fish Royal case was a joke, The inhabitants of Trout River, and another nearby town, Rocky Harbour, are in an eerily similar situation as the townspeople in Fish Royal. Canadian federal authorities claim that they aren't responsible for removing the whale. CBC News has detailed coverage of the story, including the towns' dispute with the government:

Rocky Harbour Mayor Walter Nicolle said the government and DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] are telling the communities they have to deal with the carcasses. 
Nicolle said it's a difficult task to get rid of such a big animal, and small communities like his don't have the resources. 
"We talked to DFO and they don't want to take responsibility to remove the whale. The whale is in the Rocky Harbour boundaries, so the cost should be [covered] by the town," said Nicolle. 
[Trout River restaurant owner, Jenny] Parsons said the council in Trout River is dealing with the same problem — what to do with the world's largest mammal when it washes up on your shore? 
Nicolle said the DFO won't pay to remove it, and has to grant clearance before the town is allowed to move it. 
"It's in their jurisdiction when it comes to us removing the whale, but it's in our jurisdiction when it comes to costs of removing it." 
Nicolle said time is running out for Rocky Harbour to find help getting rid of the whale, and every day the stink is getting worse.
The threat of an impending explosion makes this case even more dramatic than the Fish Royal scenario. Rumors that this is a publicity stunt for the upcoming season of 24 have not been confirmed. Hopefully the federal government gets its act together so that the citizens of Trout River and Rocky Harbour avoid the unpleasant fate of the citizens of Pudding Magna.

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