Japan is set to resume its commercial whaling operations on the 1st of July. As you read the first line of this post, what thoughts race through your head? The debate surrounding whaling raises emotions and, in some countries, is culturally sensitive. The question is: why? Why is whaling so controversial in our times? Is it because we hold the mammals in awe because of their sheer size? Or is it because of their intelligence that we consider whaling to be wrong? Let us try to analyze both sides of the debate. Instead of focusing on the moral aspects of the debate, I shall be trying to bring out the rational aspects of the discussion and try to present you with an unbiased overview of whaling.
First, in this post, we shall be considering the whaling of the 13 species as listed on the website of the International Whaling Commission (hereafter referred to as the IWC). Secondly, it is important to understand that specific whales are hunted in particular areas of the world.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Humans have engaged in whaling since the prehistoric times. The Bangude Petroglyphs in South Korea (which may be 7,000 years old) provide the earliest archaeological evidence for whaling. Reading the history of whaling, from the Bangudae times will acquaint you with the Ainu, the Inuit, the Basques, the English, the French, the Dutch, the Danes, the Japanese, the Norwegians, the Faroese, the Russians and the Icelanders as historical (some, present) whalers. While some hunted for subsistence, others hunted for the market that had formed around whale oil, whale oil and later, whale meat. With increased competition and a market for whale products, whales were hunted without any restraint. By 1900, this became evident as the bowhead, gray, northern humpback and right whales were nearly extinct. It is important to note that this is the time which marked the decline of the whaling industry as whale oil was replaced by the much cheaper and longer lasting kerosene. As of today, most whaling is done for the meat and in some cases, teeth and vertebrae carvings, However, with a lot of the whale stocks depleted, an unregulated whaling industry and the coming of age of international organizations, the IWC was formed on the 2nd of December 1946 to conserve whales and regulate the industry. A landmark achievement of the IWC was the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling which was put in place to replenish the whale stocks.
Iceland, Norway, Russia, Japan, and a few countries have objected to the moratorium. With the moratorium in place, the IWC does allow two other types of whaling: Special Permit Whaling (SPW) and Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW).
a. Special Permit Whaling refers to the capture of whales for scientific research;
b. Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling is carried out in indigenous communities where whales play an important part in the nutritional and cultural life of the peoples.
Norway and Iceland today issue their own quotas based on stock assessments of the populations in the central North Atlantic and off West Greenland. Iceland mainly captures Fin and Minke whales while Norway mainly the Minke. As of current estimates, there are approximately 50,000 Minke whales in the central North Atlantic area and 26,500 Fin whales in the North Atlantic area. Iceland’s current total allowable catch (TAC) for fin whales is 161 animals/year and for Minke whales is 217 animals/year. For Norway, the TAC is currently at 1,278 whales/year. With Norway hunting in the Eastern Norwegian Sea and the Eastern Barents Sea, the best estimate for the population is at 140,000. Iceland exports most of its catches to Japan, but some whale meat has also been imported into the country from Norway. It is at this point that I must point out that Iceland’s trade with Japan isn’t illegal. One of the important treaties that come up in this discussion is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which ensures that species which are endangered don’t become a part of international trade. Iceland has made reservations to CITES Appendices listings of fin and Minke whales and thus legally, it isn’t bound by the provisions of the Convention related to the trade in the relevant species listed in the Appendices. A small part of the capture is used as food. Norway uses its capture for human and animal food, although it also exports meat to Japan.
Special Permit Whaling is allowed under Article VIII of the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling (1946), which permits countries to kill, capture and treat whales for scientific research. Lethal sampling methods are important to know the age, maturation, pregnancy, mating period, feeding habits, nursing stage, and biochemical constituents. Non-lethal methods come to play when scientists wish to study the reproductive cycle or want to tag the whales. Japan, from the years 2008-2017, has issued such permits and captured 5,514 (according to numbers from the ICW website). The Japanese proposal to withdraw from the IWC and resume commercial whaling isn’t new. The Institute of Cetacean Research (hereafter referred to as ICR) of Japan does admit to selling the whale meat in the national market. It argues that the rationale behind doing so is to make sure that the resources (in this case, the whales) are wasted. The ICR website also points out that income from the sale of the by-products offsets the cost of the research. Japan’s return to commercial whaling can also be explained by their long history of whaling and whales being a part of the diet. In some circles, attempts to stop whaling are often seen as an attack on Japanese culture. In a survey conducted by Junko Sakuma of the Rikkyo University, 70% of Japanese are pro-whaling and consider the move to withdraw from the IWC as ‘. a victory for the whaling culture’. With that being said, Japan still doesn’t get a free pass to hunt the whales to extinction.
The whole idea of sustainable whaling stems from the idea, as pointed out earlier, of thinking whales are marine resources. Sustainable whaling would, in principle, provide for the existing whale market and at the same time, ensure that whales aren’t hunted to extinction and given enough time to breed and replenish their stock size (gestation periods of whales range anywhere from 10-18 months). This can be achieved through setting quotas that have been calculated after careful surveys of populations and strict legal frameworks which ensure that the quotas aren’t exceeded.
However, there are a few questions we must ask ourselves. Do we agree with the concept of sustainable whaling? Or are we driving for a complete ban on whaling?
Another point of controversy that comes up in the discussion of whaling is the idea of cetacean intelligence. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises all belong to the order of Cetacea. How would our perceptions of cetacean intelligence affect our decisions when it comes to sustainable whaling?
Cetaceans have large brains. We aren’t concentrated on the brain-to-body ratio. If we were, Hummingbirds would be the most intelligent animals. It is thought that these brains must have evolved to help them function effectively in a complex society characterized by collaboration, communication, and competition (among group members). Members of the Cetacean order have been shown to possess declarative knowledge (understanding of symbolic representations of things and events), procedural knowledge (an understanding of how things work and how to manipulate them), social knowledge (an understanding of the activities, identities and behaviors of others) and an understanding of one’s own image (self-knowledge) in laboratories. Whales, while in the wild, usually form long-term bonds, higher order alliances and cooperative networks, all which rest on learning and robust memory. Furthermore, the whale society exhibits multiculturalism, in the sense that, groups with different cultures use the same habitat. Perhaps, in our discussion of intelligence, the quality of brain tissue is more important than the sheer size. Maybe intelligence is just relative, evolving to fulfill the evolutionary needs of a species. When considering a whale’s ability to travel, communicate, manage its complex social systems and care for its young, we realize that they are highly intelligent species. However, we need to stop assessing intelligence through metrics that work for humans. Perhaps, the domination of the earth and interstellar travel aren’t the ultimate expressions of intelligence. Being intelligent, we come to ask the important question of whether they feel pain. Now, brain scan machines haven’t been invented for whales, and it is difficult to determine if they feel pain and how they process it.
Whaling operations (including ASW) around the world make sure that the animal is killed in the most humane way possible in the quickest amount of time (always almost within seconds). There are no more high-speed boat chases that cause distress within the animals or harpoons which make the hunt last for hours. The question of ‘humane’ slaughter goes into the moral zone and, as pointed out earlier, I’m not going to go there.
The welfare of whales is also affected by factors other than whaling. These include climate change, marine debris, bycatches (accidental capture in fishing gear), beach stranding, ship strikes, anthropogenic (human-made) noise and chemical pollution. The noise is generated from shipping, seismic exploration, drilling, and construction.
And remember, if you ever happen to see a cetacean stranded on a beach, do not try to re-float the animal by yourself. Please contact your local strandings network.