Whaling: A live issue over death

by Mark Brazil

Whales dolphins and porpoises, the aquatic mammals collectively called cetaceans, number less than 80 species, or fewer than 2 percent of all mammals. They are, however, probably the most talked about and written about of all wild animals — despite being some of the most poorly understood creatures on earth. Their conservation and hunting are hotly debated — but why?

I have in my hand a sperm whale tooth inscribed: “Taken in the Arctic Ocean 1850.” Etched in the form of a bird of prey’s head and covered with scrimshawed whaling scenes, this one artifact alone resonates with the history and culture of whaling.

People have benefited from whales for more than 2,000 years. Pursuit by kayak, armed with only a barbed spear, was a risky skill developed among Arctic peoples of Greenland, Alaska and eastern Siberia. In the Faroe Islands and in Japan, people learned to drive small whales into nets or into enclosed bays and ashore where they could be despatched. Elsewhere, knowledge of whale migratory patterns enabled people to ambush and kill them with harpoons coated with a paste made from the roots of the beautiful, and powerfully poisonous, purple monkshood flower.

This ancient coastal whaling was seasonal and dangerous, but it did provide a highly rewarding bounty of meat, baleen, bone and blubber. So, as maritime skills improved, the lure grew of whaling further out at sea. Between A.D. 800 and 1000, the adventurous Basque people of the west Pyrenees were probably the first to take the pursuit to the deep seas as they roamed the North Atlantic.

Over the centuries, depletion of local whale population drove hunters to seek out ever more remote whaling grounds. Their techniques, however, remained essentially unchanged. Whalers rowed small open boats and threw harpoons at leviathans — in particular, the slow, docile northern right whales.

Historically, the abundance of whales worldwide was astonishing. In 1635, a mariner named Richard Mather described a scene off Cape Cod, with “multitudes of great whales . . . spewing up water in the air like the smoke of chimneys and making the sea about them white and hoary.”

Meanwhile, a little further north, 17th-century French missionaries found whales so abundant in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that one wrote, “they hindered our rest by their continuous movement and the noise of their spoutings.”

Such reports serve as a potent reminder of just how depleted whale stocks have become. Nowhere today can they be found in such numbers.

Ultimately, coastal whaling gave way to pelagic or ocean-going whaling; maritime nations and colonial powers joined in the deadly pursuit. Technological advances allowed the pursuit of faster-moving humpback and sperm whales. Their oil was used for lighting and as machine lubricant, thereby further facilitating the industrial development that armed their hunters.

Not only was the number of whales being killed unsustainable, but the barbaric methods employed doomed many to a prolonged, painful and exhausting death over hours or even days.

‘Nantucket sleigh ride’

There were casualties on the other side, too. The aftermath of harpooning from an open boat took many a crew off on a “Nantucket sleigh ride” as the rope ran out and the whale fled — and not all survived.

Whales are enigmatic submarine creatures, difficult to observe, awkward to study and hard to hunt. But by the late 1800s, steam-powered boats were ushering in further change to the ancient practice of whaling. The invention of the explosive harpoon, generally credited to Norway in the 1860s, was another significant step. Launched from a gun, it improved range, accuracy — and killing power. Now the pursuit of the fastest blue, fin, sei and minke whales became possible.

Whaling, like sealing, was a cut-throat industry. Give too much away about your hunting grounds, and competitors soon appeared, so the temptation was always to capitalize today because who knew what resources would be left the next day. Regulation of the industry was non-existent; the opportunities and incentives for under-recording catches were there and seemingly widely exploited.

The development of “factory ships” in the early years of the 20th century made it possible for whalers to stay at sea for months on end. The increased operational costs, however, drove hunters to catch ever more whales to make the business pay — a vicious circle of overcapitalization and hunting pressure that ultimately led to the industry’s collapse.

Early population research was simplistic, and prior to the 1972 instigation of an international observer scheme, whaling figures could not be verified. All data prior to 1972 is at best debatable, and at worst highly questionable. Nevertheless, it is neither surprising nor in doubt that whale populations plummeted. Around the world, abandoned whaling stations that died before the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling are there for all to see, evidence that whaling from those places had proven unsustainable.

As early as 1931, overexploitation and the need for regulation and whale conservation was recognized in the first International Whaling Accord, signed by 22 countries. By the 1940s, though, stocks had become so diminished that most countries left the industry. Only Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, the Soviet Union and Japan remained as key pelagic whaling nations — though as the industry’s economic value also declined, the number of Antarctic whaling expeditions plunged from 18 in 1949/50 to just two in 1982/83.

Not before time, it might be said, as from 1904-63, 160,555 southern hemisphere humpbacks alone were reported killed, and during the industry’s peak in the 1960s the annual toll of all whales was at least 66,000. As a result, some species became critically endangered, with southern blue whale numbers now thought to be just 1 percent of pre-exploitation levels, while only 3 percent of humpbacks survive.

Though the mad rush for seasonal whaling grounds ultimately triggered industry regulations to limit competition between whaling companies, by the 1980s there had been a clear shift in emphasis to securing the survival of endangered species. Since then, there has been a flood tide in favor of conservation.

Out of sync with this groundswell of global opinion, the Japanese government retains a surprisingly old-fashioned anticonservation perspective — a perspective that even ignores the country’s younger generations, who are more enamored of a Big Mac than a kujira steak.

Changing rationales

A poll of 179 people I conducted last week in Hokkaido revealed that while 54.2 percent expressed interest in eating whale meat, only 20.7 percent wanted to eat dolphin meat (both figures hiding a lesser interest among young people than older people). The poll also found that only 45.8 percent of respondents were comfortable with Japan’s image as a whale-hunting nation, and 89.4 percent were against the widespread retail practice of selling dolphin meat labeled as “whale.”

However, at IWC meetings Japan exerts considerable pressure in favor of the resumption of commercial whaling. Viewed dispassionately, its inflexible stance is odd for several reasons. Japan’s industrial whaling is not based on its traditional coastal whaling, but on recently imported techniques. Its whale-eating “tradition,” too, is something that was actively promoted during the postwar Occupation to counter protein shortages, but whale meat is now less a dietary staple and more of a culinary novelty.

In addition, as the number of whales it killed in the name of “research” hardly changed after 1986, when Japan conformed semantically to the 1982 IWC moratorium that went into effect that year, why does its government need to persuade anyone to allow commercial whaling?

But then again, with the development of so many nonlethal research techniques — whether DNA sampling, satellite-tracking, telemetric tagging or analysis of feces to determine diet — the government’s support for killing whales even for “research” seems as odd as killing giant pandas, Siberian tigers or Japanese cranes for the same purpose.

As any follower of long-term land reclamation or dam-construction issues here knows, plans tend to remain essentially unaltered despite repeated rejection or defeat. What changes is the rationale offered by industry and the government. So, food was the first rationale for whaling; then “research.” The newest offered is the most laughable: culling, deemed necessary because whales have become the scapegoat for the declining world fish-stock.

Undeterred by such arguments, or by the fact that most former whaling nations have long been driven out of the industry by economics and are now vociferous critics of the practice, Japan — along with Iceland and Norway — remains a whaling stalwart. In contrast to Norway, though, which resumed its coastal minke whale hunting in 1993 and lodged a forthright official objection to the IWC moratorium, Japan is left defiantly defending whaling conducted under the banner of “research” — and drawing the ire of conservationists the world over for it.

But there is yet another spin to the debate. Given that the IWC was established to regulate, not eliminate whaling, isn’t Japan’s stance perfectly reasonable, even though a large proportion of IWC members are fostering interests in whale-watching instead?

Muddying the waters is the fraught issue of whale-population data, with political agendas on both sides of the debate fostering differing interpretations of estimated numbers.

To begin with, many population estimates are at least 10 years old, and recent surveys indicate that past estimates may have been too optimistic. Taking such variation into account, there are today probably more than 250,000 minke and about 360,000 sperm whales in the world’s oceans. Viewed against even the lowest estimates, therefore, Japan’s catch of 4,000 minke since 1986 is insignificant, as are the 10 sperm whales it plans to take each year. (Alarming, though, is its proposal this year to kill 50 Pacific sei whales, which are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “Red List” of most endangered species.) So what are the arguments about?

Well, one point giving pause for thought is this: If minke whales really are common in the North Pacific, why does Japan invite further international criticism by sending its “research” fleet to kill them all the way down in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary declared by the IWC in 1994? Is this, in fact, some kind of smokescreen being cast over the killing annually of 10,000 to 30,000 dolphins and porpoises, whose flesh is sold as whale meat?

A recent MORI poll, and my own poll, of Japanese attitudes, found support for whaling is by no means overwhelming. Few respondents believed that Japan’s cultural identity would be at risk if whaling were halted. In particular, most people were against eating dolphin meat and even more strongly against mislabeling it as whale meat.

The question of dolphin meat aside, with the global whaling-industry infrastructure now virtually nonexistent, and the few remaining whaling nations only seemingly taking insignificant fractions of the populations — wherein lies the problem?

Though both the pro- and anti-whaling camps marshal figures that support their own perspectives, neither can disagree that while some stocks have begun to recover during the moratorium, others seem still to be struggling. Nor can the global shift in attitudes since the 1970s be questioned. Now, large numbers of people are in favor of conserving whales, and many in Japan — along with millions worldwide — are eager to watch them.

Perhaps an agreeable resolution can be found in a scientifically based moratorium, or a quota system using best estimates, worse-case scenarios and mathematical models. Certainly, appearing to attempt to impose the cultural, ethical or political value judgments of one group of nations on another smacks of cultural imperialism. There is also a danger that ethical arguments may nudge the IWC toward stronger protectionism, driving those countries bent on resuming whaling out of its fold.

Furthermore, one irony is that the element of nationalism undoubtedly present in Japan’s pro-whaling lobby is partly a response to overly direct pressure from conservation organizations during the early 1980s. Without that pressure, Japan’s whale-hunting industry might have quietly died.

To overcome all these problems, could the IWC not clearly restate its goals as sustaining future whale populations for the good of all, while allowing nations eager to resume whaling to establish transparent monitoring and harvesting regimens in their own whaling organizations? Alternatively, perhaps transparency could be guaranteed by neutral international observers placed on all whaling vessels. Couldn’t countries at odds with the stances of Japan and Norway then express their condemnation by other means, such as trade sanctions?

Though population estimates may suggest grounds for reopening limited hunts, as other markets have shown (elephant ivory in particular), legal markets often hide illegal trade. In the past, whaling nations often under-reported their catches, with the Soviet Union’s southern-hemisphere fleet, for example, tallying just 2,710 humpbacks from 1948-73 — but in reality taking more than 48,000.

Furthermore, DNA testing has revealed that Japan’s current market for “researched” minke whale hides the sale of meat from many other species, including gray, humpback, fin and sei.

The premise underlying resumption of commercial whaling is that it would target only abundant species, but with such blatant rule-breaking already occurring, it seems doubtful that limited whaling can be controlled.

In an era when farmed meat is the norm and commercial hunting of large mammals is an anachronism, would it not simply be better to recognize that, for practical purposes, whaling has metamorphosed from a deadly pursuit with harpoon and gun to a repeatable thrill armed with binoculars and cameras?

Whale-watching began in the 1950s, when people first started going out to see migrating gray whales off California. By 1995, commercial whale-watching attracted 5.4 million people a year in more than 65 countries, who spent $504 million on tours, travel, accommodation and souvenirs. Between 1991 and 1994 whale-watcher numbers increased 10.3 percent on average, while revenue earned increased by an average of 16.6 percent.

In short, whale-watching is an economic force to be reckoned with, and one that combines awesome experiences and close-range encounters with a profound educational opportunity. It owes its rapidly growing success to its substantial economic and social value. Meanwhile, former whalers have found a reliable future, and tourist authorities — in regions as far apart as the Canary Islands, Maui, Vancouver Island and New Zealand — realize that whale-related tourism is a growth industry. Whale-watchers can now marvel at numerous different species in places as far afield as Antarctica, Australia, Iceland, Kamchatka and Indonesia.

Many may wonder why Japan’s government appears so set against this shift and the nonconsumptive values it indicates. Especially with so many whales to be easily seen off the shores of its own islands.