This article is reprinted with permission from First Science - Friday 2nd July 2004
Whaling - A Bloody Business
by Stuart Brown - Editor - FirstScience.com
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is once more meeting in the Italian city of Sorrento, and on the agenda is the proposed resumption of commercial whaling. The IWC has an interesting history. It was founded in 1946 by the world’s 14 largest whaling nations to manage whale stocks. This was primarily an economic and not a conservation role, and was basically a whaling version of OPEC. An attempt to maximize profits from whaling whilst trying to ensure that there were enough whales to keep the populations viable for fishing. In this remit the IWC was totally ineffective, running an old boys club that was a whalers charter. During the 1950’s and 60s an average of over 60,000 whales of different species were killed EACH YEAR. The IWC set such high quota limits that within 20 years of being formed the number of blue whales had plummeted to the point where the species was staring extinction in the face.
It was in the light of this harsh reality, and the introduction of non-whaling countries to membership of the IWC (there are now 53 member nations), exerting pressure and pushing environmental concerns more to the fore, that a moratorium on all commercial whaling was approved in 1982, and actually became effective in 1986. It is this measure that has allowed the number of other species of whales to start to recover.
The history of whaling dates back thousands of years. As long as man has had boats, spears and the inclination to hunt. Because whales are a fabulous source of many things. Food, oil, wax, a base product for perfumes and much more. And because of the sheer size of these magnificent creatures they offer their resources in vast quantities. Indeed, it was not until the rise of the petroleum industry in the 1870s that whale oil products (especially Sperm Whale oil as it was said to give off a less pungent aroma) began to be superceded by petroleum based products. Though now it is the meat, rather then the oil or other by-products (where alternatives are now easily available) that the whale is killed for.
The first whaling that could really be considered as commercial whaling on a larger, more organized scale occurred in Spain around the Bay of Biscay in the 9th Century AD. There was then something of a lull until the British, Dutch and Americans took up the challenge in a big way in the 17th century using boats and hand held harpoons. And even before the days of the explosive harpoon (1868) and the motorized whale catcher in the 1870s, which made the killing of larger and faster whales (Minke, Fin, Sei and Blue whales) a much easier prospect; whales were being killed in enormous numbers.
Nowdays, the biggest threat to the whales comes from Japan and Norway (and more recently Iceland) who actively flout the moratorium that was brought in in 1986. This is because there are three main loopholes in the IWC moratorium which supposedly bans whaling. These are firstly that compliance with the moratorium is voluntary: any IWC member country can file a protest at the moratorium, and then they need not abide by it: Norway is hunting Minke whales in the North Atlantic under such a protest. Secondly, there are exceptions for "aboriginal whaling"; the American Eskimos are still allowed to hunt the bowhead whale and the gray whale, and the Russians are allowed to take 100-200 gray whales to serve to their northern aboriginals (the current total population of gray whales is estimated to be only 26000). Denmark also hunts under this loophole. Thirdly, whaling "for scientific research" is still allowed. It is under this particular get out clause that Japan kills whales. Oddly enough though, their 'scientific research' involves selling the carcasses to restaurants for food. So perhaps the Japanese prefer to do their 'whaling science' with a full stomach?
Below is a Chart of the total whales killed between 1986 (when the moratorium supposedly came into force) and 2001. (Compiled based on detailed yearly whaling statistics from http://luna.pos.to/whale/sta.html)
I have included the totals for the first two years of the moratorium, and then the rest in order to compare like with like. The first two years were clearly a period of transition, and including the totals for 1988 to 2001 separately gives a clearer idea of who is now actively flouting the moratorium. The bottom line is that since 1986 when there was supposed to be a total halt to whaling, some 27,406 whales of different types had been killed up to 2001 (and more since). Just recently Iceland also announced plans to kill 500 whales in 2004/5 under the guise of 'scientific research'. And both Japan and Norway are actively campaigning to bring back commercial whaling at the 2004 IWC convention.
This is something that must be resisted. Commercial Whaling has already brought these magnificent creatures to the brink of destruction. Just in time the international community stepped back from the precipice and introduced a moratorium that took full effect in 1986. As the figures above show even now Japan and Norway are actively whaling, despite the ban, Iceland is starting again, and other countries also participate in the guise of tradition. In truth though the catch of whales taken in the name of traditional peoples is not the big problem from an ecological perspective at least. This can be controlled. It is the commercial whaling where the real problems lie. The seas are mechanically and mercilessly stripped at a frightening pace that allows no time for the whales to establish healthy vibrant populations. (See also ramble on - Badgers and Buttheads and Fish Stocks)
Even now Japan and Norway kill over a thousand whales between them every year, and that is when it is banned! It will be over 1500 a year with Iceland's shameful contribution. If commercial whaling were ever re-introduced then these figures would undoubtedly go up considerably. Other countries would also jump on the bandwagon to cash in on this death trade that feeds the delicate palettes of Tokyo's population. And within a few years we would be back to square one, having once more either brought these wonders of nature to the brink of extinction. Or perhaps actually accomplished the task and sent the whales the way of the dodo.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society estimates Blue Whale numbers at 3,500 and the Gray Whale at about 26,000. Other whale numbers are not readily available, but are described as vulnerable or endangered. What is clear though is that the number of whales has been totally decimated by commercial whaling, and that for the IWC to be even considering allowing it again is nothing short of insane. And yet this is a very real possibility. Japan is pushing for the moratorium to be lifted, and is rumoured to potentially have a majority of members on the IWC that will vote for this lunacy. If that is accomplished then it is clear that economic inducements will have triumphed over ecological facts. What is needed is for the moratorium to be MORE effectively policed and interpreted, not lifted.
The methods are broadly
the same now as they were a hundred years ago. Fast ships and explosive
harpoons. Their is simply no humane way to kill a whale at sea that
does not condemn the animal to excessive suffering. This is not
simply killing. It is torture. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation
Society publish a report called 'Troubled Waters' which I urge you to read. It is a report into the welfare
considerations of whaling. It quotes Dr Harry Lillie, who worked
as a ship’s physician on a whaling trip in the Antarctic half
a century ago, who described the whaling kill in the following terms:
“If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck in its stomach and being made to pull a butcher’s truck through the streets of London while it pours blood into the gutter, we shall have an idea of the method of killing. The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream, the industry would stop for nobody would be able to stand it.”
Whaling is not only a bloody business though. It is bad business. 'Whale watching' is an industry that is worth over $1 billion a year. It was the US that first popularised the concept in the mid 1950's off a California coastline which is blessed with Blue Whales. And the idea of watching and learning from nature rather then randomly destroying it is a concept that has come of age. The energy that Norway puts into trying to export dead whales to Japan would be better spent on building their sustainable live whale watching facilities. It would be better for the whales, better for the environment, and better for Norway's economy.
The lure of the dead blubber flesh has proved tough for Japan to resist. And they will no doubt try to get other member countries on-side with economic inducements to re-instate commercial whaling, as they have at every recent IWC gathering. The other members of the IWC must stand firm. This blood business cannot be allowed to resume.
anything else then send Stuart Brown an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Stuart Brown for permission to reprint his editorial in 'SoundNet'