Losing Sidney: Part I

By Dr. Roger Payne

Sidney Holt, the biologist who orchestrated the world-wide effort to save whales, died on December 22, 2019. He was 93. Several laudatory obituaries honoring his life have appeared, but I feel there is much more to add about his extraordinary contributions.

Among scientists, Sidney Holt was most widely known for co-authoring a textbook (with Ray Beaverton) entitled: On the Dynamics of Exploited Fish Populations. Since its publication in the 1950s it has never been out of print. Its influence helped conserve untold numbers of exploited fisheries, whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, walruses, and other marine mammals and birds.

A few years after its publication Sidney became deeply involved in saving whales. He started attending and contributing to meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1961 (the IWC is the organization that sets whaling quotas) and in the end he had participated in more IWC meetings and done more than any other scientist.

However, the most memorable influences this extraordinary man had began with basics: he was a grand human being—a great companion, incredibly smart, a delight to hang out with. He also started many people on careers that helped bring whaling under control, including many who held few, if any, formal credentials. And yet often his encouragement resulted in major contributions to the cause of saving whales.

He also worked tirelessly with a cadre of young, professional biologists on methods to improve estimates of whale populations. Justin Cooke and Bill de la Mare are prime examples of his effectiveness. The solid scientific contributions that they and Sidney made have improved immeasurably our understanding of many critical aspects of how whaling affects whale populations.

In the 1980s and ‘90s I was for a while, one of three scientists who held the longest IWC attendance record. All of that time overlapped with Sidney and these two men. I watched them argue points in dozens of different venues, sometimes for eight hours or more a day—the whole thing eventually totalling several continuous months of observation time. I saw none of them ever get beaten in a scientific argument about population modelling, stocks, or quotas. They were, quite simply, the best in the business.

Paraphrased below is what I wrote about their contribution in my book, Among Whales.

Justin Cooke is a man who can, without rancor, and thus, while giving minimum offense, correct another person’s flawed scientific argument in fewer words than anyone I know.

Bill de la Mare has an equal grasp of the science, plus a marvellous, dry, sense of humor. He is a master of strategy and at drafting resolutions. Sidney Holt had these talents plus decades of experience with the IWC, both in its political meetings and as a member of its Scientific Committee and several sub-committees. He seemed to remember everything that had ever been said at every meeting; what was in every report of every committee and subcommittee; plus, the entire Schedule of the Convention and its many amendments. He knew who had proposed what, and when; who had voted how, and with what motive; the vote totals, and every item on every agenda for the past 30+ years. It was all stored in his mind… Straight.

There was no one else in the world with this knowledge, though there were two others at the IWC on the side of the whalers who fancied that they possessed it. But whenever they confronted Sidney it just ended with them embarrassing themselves, until, after some years of futile effort they stopped trying.

One Japanese Commissioner to the IWC had a particularly nasty attitude towards Sidney. He spent several years challenging him, even goading him; ‘Well you’re an old man and have probably forgotten’ [this or that point].’ But it was no contest. He never bested Sidney, because Sidney hadn’t forgotten anything; the problem was with the opponent; he hadn’t fully understood the points he thought Sidney had forgotten.

In truth, I never saw anyone best Sidney in a scientific argument, or in any argument concerning the commission’s record, and, as I have said, my sample was very large.

I have no idea how often my heart sank as I thought; ‘All is lost,’ about some point, often a procedural point (the perennial refuge of the scoundrel lawyers that adorned some whaling delegations like the neon signs that advertise beer causing so much light pollution you can’t see our galaxy—the Milky Way). But then, I would see Sidney slowly raise the card for the Seychelles delegation of which he was a member, and having been called upon would say in a dry and patient voice something along the following lines:

Dr. Holt:

“Mr. Chairman I am finding it difficult to see why it is that the distinguished delegate from Iceland is taking this position now, for I recall that back in 1979, at a time when the Scientific Subcommittee was discussing the same issue, that Iceland proposed [such and such], which, as you can see, seems to be the opposite of what Iceland is now asking us to do. Do you suppose he might be given the opportunity to explain to all of us why it is that his country took that position then, and is taking the opposite position now?”

Deathly silence. Of course the delegate from Iceland has no idea what his delegation said in 1979 (let alone what the full significance is of what he just said himself—since that point was fed him by an advisor 30 seconds before he made it). If he is new to the game he may guess that Sidney is bluffing, and decide to call his bluff. But God help him if he does. For the Seychelles’ delegation desk is piled high with telephone-book-sized “Reports of the International Whaling Commission,” and by now Sidney has found and has his finger on the point to which he was referring. If the Icelandic delegate tries to bluff or wriggle his way out, Sidney will proceed like one of those hydraulic presses that crush entire cars into brick-shaped bales of compact steel.

Dr. Holt:

“Mr. Chairman, I believe that what my distinguished colleague has said is the opposite of Iceland’s previous stand. Here is the passage to which I referred: [he reads it]. What the Icelandic delegate said just now was: [he quotes it verbatim—something its author could not have done—but as I have said, Sidney had an extraordinary memory]. As you can see we seem to have a problem in squaring these two statements. Perhaps the distinguished delegate from Iceland can help us?”

A lot of bluster and hot air from that delegate—to which no one pays the least attention, everyone by now having realized that the Icelander has no idea of his country’s precedents, and the sooner he resumes his seat the less pain the meeting will feel; and anyway, the attention of everyone is now elsewhere, and many are just chatting among themselves.

It was in this manner that threats so often vanished, and each time they did I would look over at that white-haired man and think, “Thank you Sidney Holt. I’m sure the whales will thank you too.”

I saw that sort of exchange not once or twice but so many times that with Sidney now gone, all I can feel is: heaven help the whales.

There are many of us who might wish to believe that we made significant contributions to saving whales and setting the stage for a ‘moratorium.’  But it was Sidney Holt, along with scientists like Justin Cooke and Bill de la Mare, whose careful analyses showed the flaws in the ‘science’ of what the rest of us called “the whalers’ tame scientists.” And in this way Sidney and those two men contributed more to bringing whaling under control than any other scientists.

©Roger Payne

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