The announcement at the end of last year that Japan was going to officially resume commercial whaling generated predictable headlines and horrified reactions around the world. People love to criticize Japan for permitting the hunting and killing of whales, and in the face of international condemnation Tokyo has usually doubled down on its insistence that whaling is part of Japanese culture and that foreign countries have no right to hand out lectures on animal welfare.
Two things I read in the wake of the announcement added some nuance to the usual feeling of righteous indignation, and even offered a little bit of solace.
Putting aside commercial whaling, even when Japan has been carrying out its so-called scientific whaling programs — which, as has been widely reported, do not produce any scientific data worth having — there has been vocal and almost universal international opposition. A journalist colleague in the United States, Andrew Revkin, pointed me to an essay by Michiko Aramaki at Concordia University in Montreal.
Aramaki makes the point, first, that it was large-scale historical whaling by the United Kingdom, U.S. and Germany that decimated whale populations in the first place, not whaling by Japan, which in historical times was very small-scale. She then suggests that anti-whaling discourse by the “Anglosphere” (referring to English-speaking countries: the U.S,. the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand) serves to mask racism toward the Japanese.
Perhaps she has a point. Of course, no forms of racism should be tolerated. And I do feel that it is hypocritical if people in the Anglosphere are vocally opposed to whaling but silent over the barbarism of commercial beef, pig and chicken farming, for example. I do feel, however, that while animal welfare leaves a lot to be desired in the U.K. and the U.S. (putting it mildly), the harpooning of whales causes even more suffering. That’s not even to mention the drive hunting of dolphins that takes place in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.
Whatever its root cause, the condemnation of Japan became louder with the December 2018 announcement that Tokyo would leave the International Whaling Commission. The IWC is supposed to protect and conserve whale stocks in order that a whaling industry might one day be possible, but since 1982 it has imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling because population sizes of whales were not big enough to sustain hunting.
Here comes the potential ray of light.
Japan nows says it will quit membership of the IWC and no longer hunt in the Southern Oceans. Its pseudo-scientific hunt there will finally end. Japan will, however, hunt in Japanese territorial waters. It will develop a quota system designed to deliver a sustainable catch. What can possibly be good about that? Well, if you are a whale off the coast of Japan, nothing.
But Japan has long been accused of using its financial muscle to influence members of the IWC. As Matthew Collis of the International Fund for Animal Welfare told New Scientist, without Japan around to interfere, the IWC will be able to properly work for the conservation of whales.
It should go without saying that all lifeforms should be treated with respect. The rights of whales — and the plight of whales — is more of an issue for most people than the rights of cows and pigs, perhaps because whales are wild animals, perhaps because they are more overtly intelligent — they seem more like us. They have culture, they have complex behavior and communication, and some species appear to mourn their dead. I just read this week that two more whale species — belugas and narwhals — go through menopause. That means we now know of five species of mammal that experience the menopause: belugas, narwhals, killer whales and short-finned pilot whales. And humans.
Why only those five? A species has to have an evolutionary reason to stop reproducing yet carry on living. For humans it is thought to be the support that grandmothers can provide and the information they can pass on. It may well be the same for whales.
Rowan Hooper is managing editor of New Scientist magazine. He tweets at @rowhoop and his book, “Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability,” is out now, published by Simon & Schuster.