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Whale of a guy

Jon Lien recognized for contributions

A retired Memorial University professor affectionately known as “the whale man” has received a national conservation award. Retired professor Dr. Jon Lien, founder of the Whale Research Group (WRG) of Memorial University, was recently one of three recipients of the Canadian Environment Awards in the Community Awards category.

Dr. Lien is well known as the professor who invented thinking outside the box, using the ocean as his classroom.

Glenn Blackwood, executive director of the Marine Institute, has known Dr. Lien as a co-worker, friend and neighbour since the early 1980s. He sums up Dr. Lien’s teaching and research style this way: “He would have been a poster boy for the Harris Centre and a nightmare for Risk Management all in one larger than life package.”

He also describes Dr. Lien as “one of the best known Memorial University researchers in the province, especially in rural Newfoundland.” “He was charismatic, courageous and encouraged students to do whatever they wanted. He was a kind of Viking in championing some big issues,” said Memorial professor Dr. Bill Montevecchi. He should know. He started teaching at MUN about 35 years ago, replacing Dr. Lien who went on sabbatical and then worked with him until Dr. Lien’s retirement in 1996.

Dr. Lien, who also just received the Order of Canada, is most famous for founding the WRG, an educational and conservation campaign, in 1978. In studying the vocalization first of sea birds and eventually whales, he was struck by the animosity fishermen felt towards whales. The giant mammals were constantly getting stuck in fishing nets, forcing fishermen to ruin their nets to free them. But Dr. Lien believed there was room in the ocean for both.

“Jon engendered a wildlife ethic in fishermen,” said Dr. Montevecchi. “Every large scale research project at MUN has to have a social component and Jon was doing this 25-30 years ago.”

According to the Canadian Geographic web site, Dr. Lien’s goal was to satisfy the fishermen and the whales. He and his crew would paddle a Zodiac alongside the giant mammal, calm it, and then gradually release its head and fins, pushing it free of the net. “Persuading the fishermen to accept our help as environmentalists took a great deal of time,” he stated in an earlier interview. But he succeeded and rescued more than 1,000 whales from fishing nets over the past 30 years — primarily vulnerable humpbacks.

The Canadian Environment Awards program is a partnership between the Government of Canada and Canadian Geographic Enterprises. For more details visit