Whaling is the hunting of whales that dates back to at least 6,000 BC. The evolution of traditional Arctic whaling developed with increasing rapidity with early organized fleets in the 17th century; competitive national whaling industries in the 18th and 19th centuries; and the introduction of factory ships along with the concept of whale "harvesting" in the first half of the 20th century.
The formation of an International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1946 marks the beginning of modern whaling, with its consensus-based emphasis on conservation, resource management, and international cooperative standards. Contemporary arguments for and against whaling are the subjects of on-going contention. No resolution of these sometimes heated disputes appears likely in the foreseeable future.
History of whaling
Whaling began in prehistoric times and was initially confined to (near) coastal waters. Early whaling affected the development of widely disparate cultures – as, for example, in Norway and Japan. Although prehistoric hunting and gathering is generally considered to have had low ecological impact, early whaling in the Arctic altered freshwater ecology. The development of modern whaling techniques was spurred in the 19th century by the increase in demand for whale oil, sometimes known as "train oil" and in the 20th century by a demand for margarine and later whale meat.
In the United States whaling is carried out by Alaska natives from nine different communities in Alaska. The whaling program is managed by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission which reports to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The hunt takes around 50 Bowhead Whales a year from a population of about 10,500 in Alaskan waters. Conservationists fear this hunt is not sustainable, though the IWC Scientific Committee, the same group that provided the above population estimate, projects a population growth of 3.2% per year. The hunt also took an average of one or two Gray Whales each year until 1996. The quota was reduced to zero in that year due to concerns about sustainability. A review set to take place in the future may result in the hunt being resumed. Bowhead whales weigh approximately 5-10 times as much as Minke Whales .
The Makah tribe in Washington State also reinstated whaling in 1999, despite intense protests from animal rights groups. They are currently seeking to resume whaling of the Gray Whale , a right granted to the Makah by the Treaty of Neah Bay.
Ship collision, bycatch and illegal trade
WWF says that 90% of all whales being killed are from ship collision followed by catch and then hunting. Moreover, since the IWC moratorium, there have been several instances of illegal whale caching by IWC nations. In 1994, the IWC reported evidence from genetic testing of whale meat and blubber for sale on the open market in Japan in 1993. In addition to the legally-permitted minke whale, the analyses showed that the 10-25% tissues sample came from non minke, baleen whales species, neither of which were then allowed for take under the IWC rules. Further research in 1995 and 1996 shows significant drop of non-minke baleen whales sample to 2.5%. In a separate paper, Baker stated that "many of these animals certainly represent a bycatch (incidental entrapment in fishing gear)" and stated that DNA monitoring of whale meat is required to adequately track whale products.
It was revealed in 1994 that the Soviet Union had been systematically underreporting the number of whales it took. For example, from 1948 to 1973, the Soviet Union caught 48,477 Humpback Whales rather than the 2,710 it officially reported to the IWC. On the basis of this new information, the IWC stated that it would have to rewrite its catch figures for the last forty years. According to Ray Gambell, the Secretary of the IWC at the time, the organisation had raised its suspicions of underreporting with the former Soviet Union, but it did not take further action because it could not interfere with national sovereignty.
In 1985, an activist organization, Earthtrust, placed undercover employees on Korean fishing vessels who took photographs of both fin and right whales being hunted and processed in violation of the ban.
The arguments for and against whaling
International debates over whaling have focused on issues of sustainability and conservation as well as ownership and national sovereignty. Also raised in debates is the question of cetacean intelligence and the level of suffering which the animals undergo during harvest. Since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, the value of lethal sampling of whales for scientific research in order to establish catch quotas has also been debated. Finally, the value of whaling to fisheries as a method of controlling whales' perceived negative impact on fish stocks is another point of debate.
Blue whale populations have declined dramatically due to unregulated commercial whaling, putting them at risk of extinction.
Today there is widespread agreement around the world that it is morally wrong to exterminate a species of animal. Prior to the setting up of the IWC in 1946, unregulated whaling had depleted a number of whale populations to a significant extent, and several whales species were severely endangered. Whaling and other threats have led to at least five of the 13 great whales being listed as endangered. A past ban which was implemented around the 1960s has helped some of these species of whale to recover. According to IUCN's Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG), "Several populations of southern right whales, humpbacks in many areas, grey whales in the eastern North Pacific, and Blue Whales in both the eastern North Pacific and central North Atlantic have begun to show signs of recovery."
Despite this, those opposed to whaling argue that a return to full-scale commercial whaling will lead to economic concerns overriding those of conservation, and there is a continuing battle between each side as to how to describe the current state of each species. For instance, conservationists are pleased that the Sei Whale continues to be listed as endangered, but Japan says that the species has swelled in number from 9,000 in 1978 to about 28,000 in 2002, so its catch of 50 Sei whales per year is safe and the classification of endangered should be reconsidered for the North Pacific population.
Some North Atlantic states have recently argued that Fin whales should not be listed as endangered anymore and criticize the list for being inaccurate. IUCN has recorded studies showing that more than 40,000 individuals are present in the North Atlantic Ocean around Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. There is no information about Fin Whales in areas outside of the Northern Atlantic, where they still hold the status of being endangered.
Farming whales in captivity has never been attempted and would almost certainly be logistically impossible. Instead, whales are killed at sea often using explosive harpoons, which puncture the skin of a whale and then explode inside its body. Anti-whaling groups say this method of killing is cruel, particularly if carried out by inexperienced gunners, because a whale can take several minutes or even hours to die. In March 2003, Whalewatch, an umbrella group of 140 conservation and animal welfare groups from 55 countries, led by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), published a report, Troubled Waters, whose main conclusion was that whales cannot be guaranteed to be killed humanely and that all whaling should be stopped. The report quoted official figures that said 20% of Norwegian and 60% of Japanese-killed whales failed to die as soon as they had been harpooned. WSPA further released a report in 2008 entitled Whaling: Defying international commitments to animal welfare? in which the slaughter of whales is compared – unfavorably – with slaughter guidelines for farm animals from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
John Opdahl of the Norwegian embassy in London responded by saying that Norwegian authorities worked with the IWC to develop the most humane methods. He said that the average time taken for a whale to die after being shot was the same as or less than that of animals killed by big game hunters on safari. Pro-whalers also say that the free-roaming lifestyle of whales followed by a quick death is less cruel than the long-term suffering of factory-farmed animals.
In response to the UK's opposition to the resumption of commercial whaling on the grounds that no humane method of catching whales exists, or "is on the horizon", the pro-whaling High North Alliance points to apparent inconsistencies in the policies of some anti-whaling nations by drawing comparisons between commercial whaling and recreational hunting. For instance, the United Kingdom allows the commercial shooting of deer without these shoots adhering to the standards of British slaughterhouses, but says that whalers must meet such standards as a pre-condition before they would support whaling. Moreover, fox hunting, in which foxes are mauled by dogs, is legal in many anti-whaling countries including Ireland, the United States, Portugal, Italy and France (although not in the United Kingdom) according to UK Government's Burns Inquiry (2000). Pro-whaling nations argue that they should not be expected to adhere to animal-welfare standards which anti-whaling countries do not themselves follow consistently, and draw the conclusion that the cruelty argument is a mere expression of cultural bigotry, similar to the Western attitude towards the eating of dog meat in several East Asian countries.
The economic argument
The whale watching industry and anti-whaling advocates argue that whaling catches "friendly" whales that are curious about boats, as these whales are the easiest to catch. This analysis claims that once the economic benefits of hotels, restaurants and other tourist amenities are considered, hunting whales is a net economic loss. This argument is particularly contentious in Iceland, as it has among the most-developed whale-watching operations in the world and the hunting of Minke Whales resumed in August 2003. Brazil, Argentina and South Africa argue that whale watching is a growing billion-dollar industry that provides more revenue and more equitable distribution of profits than commercial whaling by pelagic fleets from far-away developed countries would provide. Peru, Uruguay, Australia, and New Zealand also support proposals to permanently forbid whaling South of the Equator, as Indonesia is the only country in the Southern Hemisphere with a whaling industry. Anti-whaling groups claim that developing countries which support a pro-whaling stance are damaging their economies by driving away anti-whaling tourists.
Pro-whaling advocates argue that the economic analysis assumes unsustainable whaling by arguing that whaling deprives the whale-watching industry of whales, and counter that if whales are hunted on a sustainable basis, there is no competition between the two industries. Furthermore, they point out that most whaling takes place outside of coastal areas where whale watching takes place, and communication between any whaling fleet and whale-watching boats would ensure that whaling and whale watching occurred in different areas. Pro-whaling advocates also argue that whaling continues to provide employment in the fishery, logistic and restaurant industries and that whale blubber can be converted into valuable oleochemicals while whale carcasses can be rendered into meat and bone meal. Poorer whaling nations argue that the need for resumption of whaling is pressing. Horace Walters, from the Eastern Caribbean Cetacean Commission stated, "We have islands which may want to start whaling again - it's expensive to import food from the developed world, and we believe there's a deliberate attempt to keep us away from our resources so we continue to develop those countries' economies by importing from them."
While whales possess the largest physical brains of any animal, there is no consensus about the existence, nature and magnitude of cetacean intelligence. This lack of knowledge is partly because of the cost and difficulty of carrying out research with marine mammals. Humpback whales have been found to have spindle neurons, a type of brain cell previously considered to exist only in dolphins, humans and other primates, and some species of whale are highly social.
There is an argument that whales should not be killed because of their alleged high intelligence. Pro-whalers counter that pigs, which also possess high intelligence, are routinely butchered and eaten, or indeed that intelligence should not be the determining factor of whether an animal is acceptable to eat or not.
Safety of eating whale meat
Whale meat products from certain species have been shown to contain pollutants such as PCBs, mercury, and dioxins. Levels of pollutants in toothed-whale products are significantly higher than those of baleen whales, reflecting the fact that toothed whales feed at a higher trophic level than baleen whales in the food chain (other high-up animals such as sharks, swordfish and large tuna show similarly high levels of mercury contamination). Organochloride pesticides HCH and HCB are also at higher levels in toothed species, while Minke Whales show higher levels than most other baleens.
The red meat and blubber of (toothed) Long-finned Pilot Whales in the Faroe islands show high toxin levels, which has a detrimental effect on those who eat it. However, in Norway, only the red meat of Minke Whales is eaten and the levels of toxins conform to national limits, while Japanese health-ministry scientists have found that Minkes harvested from the Antarctic, the vast majority of the whale meat eaten in Japan, are similarly within national standards for mercury and PCB levels.
Whalers say that whaling is an essential condition for the successful operation of commercial fisheries, and thus the plentiful availability of food from the sea that consumers have become accustomed to. This argument is made particularly forcefully in Atlantic fisheries, for example the cod-capelin system in the Barents Sea. A Minke Whale's annual diet consists of 10 kilograms of fish per kilogram of body mass, which puts a heavy predatory pressure on commercial species of fish, thus whalers say that an annual cull of whales is needed in order for adequate amounts of fish to be available for humans. Anti-whaling campaigners say that the pro-whaling argument is inconsistent: if the catch of whales is small enough not to negatively affect whale stocks, it is also too small to positively affect fish stocks. To make more fish available, they say, more whales will have to be caught, putting populations at risk. Additionally, whale feeding grounds and commercial fisheries do not always overlap.
Professor Daniel Pauly, Director of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia weighed into the debate in July 2004 when he presented a paper to the 2004 meeting of the IWC in Sorrento. Pauly's primary research is the decline of fish stocks in the Atlantic, under the auspices of the Sea Around Us Project. This report was commissioned by Humane Society International, an active anti-whaling lobby, and stated that although cetaceans and pinnipeds are estimated to eat 600 million tonnes of food per year, compared with just 150 million tonnes eaten by humans (although researchers at the Japanese Institute for Cetacean Research give figures of 90 million tonnes for humans and 249-436 million tonnes for cetaceans), much of the food eaten by cetaceans (in particular, deep sea squid and krill) is not consumed by humans. However, Japanese do eat krill, and krill is also used in large quantities by fish farms as feed. Pauly's report also claims that the locations where whales and humans catch fish only overlap to a small degree, and he also considers more indirect effects of whales' diet on the availability of fish for fisheries. He concludes that whales are not a significant reason for diminished fish stocks.
More recent studies have also concluded that there are several factors contributing to the decline in fish stocks, such as pollution and habitat loss.
However, the dietary behaviour of whales differ among species as well as season, location and availability of prey. For example, Sperm Whales' prey primarily consists of mesopelagic squid. However, in Iceland, they are reported to consume mainly fish. In addition to krill, Minke Whales are known to eat a wide range of fish species including capelin, herring, sand lance, mackerel, gadoids, cod, saithe and haddock. Minke Whales are estimated to consume 633,000 tons of Atlantic herring per year in part of Northeast Atlantic. In the Barents Sea, it is estimated that a net economic loss of five tons of cod and herring per fishery results from every additional Minke Whale in the population due the fish consumption of the single whale.