Time again to save the whales?

‘Save the whales’ was one of the signature phrases of my childhood, a mantra which entered the lexicon almost as completely as it infiltrated its way into the public consciousness. Growing up in the 1970s, I was in no doubt that saving the whales was an imperative so morally incontrovertible that its only dissonance was the disbelief that anybody could disagree with it.

Nearly three decades after the slogan first adorned bumper stickers, the phrase carries a nostalgia reminiscent of the idealism of the 1960s, the innocence of the socially progressive policies of the Whitlam government or with the anger of that same government’s dismissal. Saving the whales—like the days before the internet dominated our lives or the time when the world was divided into Cold War spheres of influence—seems to belong to a distant, and altogether less complicated world.

A worldwide moratorium on the hunting of whales has been in place since 1986, largely in response to those same ‘Save the whales’ campaigns across the globe. The ban on whaling was the initiative of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a body formed in 1946 to address the 1930 finding that 80 per cent of the world’s great whale species were on the brink of extinction. It took 56 years to muster the requisite political will and to form the international alliances required to put in place a regime with binding worldwide effect.

It has taken just 22 years for the international consensus to begin to unravel. Facts as to the current status of whale populations can be difficult to come by, so highly charged is the debate. On 18 July this year, the International Environment Investigation Agency stated that the outlook for whales is ‘increasingly bleak’ because of ocean pollution. Other dangers faced by whales—climate change, noise pollution, strikes by ships—pale into insignificance, however, alongside what is known as bycatch (the entanglement of other sea creatures in fishing nets) which kills 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises every year.

Within this context of the ongoing perils faced by whale populations, there are two primary threats to the 1986 moratorium and hence to whale populations across the world: the use of loopholes by whaling nations to continue commercial whaling and a shift in the balance of power at the IWC.

According to Susan Lieberman, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Species program, loopholes in the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling have permitted 25,000 whales to be killed since 1986. These loopholes allow limited whaling for scientific purposes and an unclear opt-out clause which allows nations to object to the moratorium.

The world’s three major whaling nations—Norway, Iceland and Japan—are members of the IWC and all have used the loopholes to resume commercial whaling.

After observing the moratorium for a few years, Norway announced in 1993 that stocks of minke whales had recovered sufficiently for limited whale harvesting to recommence. After an initial quota of 92 minkes in 1993, the Norwegian figure rose to 753 in 1999 (Japan kills around 450 minkes every year). The Norwegian position continues to garner some support in scientific circles. Indeed, a recent article in the International Herald Tribune asserted, seemingly with some foundation, that ‘it is hard to find a whale biologist who, in terms of numbers alone, disagrees with the contention that some whale stocks are, in theory, harvestable now’. The article continued by claiming—prematurely according to many analysts—that the ‘Save the whales’ slogan ‘no longer applies. They are back’.

To better understand the Norwegian position, it is important to remember that Norwegian whaling has a history dating back centuries. Where children elsewhere were reared on campaigns to protect the world’s largest sea mammals, young Norwegians are taught to consider whale meat to be simply another form of food.

Deputy director general of the Norwegian fisheries industry Halvard Johansen argues that anti-whaling sentiments arise simply from a detachment in modern societies from the animals we eat, with most people coming no closer to these animals than buying meat wrapped in plastic from supermarkets. Speaking to the International Herald Tribune, Johansen supported his claim in the following terms: ‘I grew up on a small farm in the northern part of Norway. In the spring we were playing with the lambs, which by any definition are cute animals, but nobody did mind eating them in the fall. That was, and still is, part of life’.

Norway supports the continued protection of endangered whale species and claims no desire to return to industrial-scale whaling. Nonetheless they continue to argue with quiet determination in favour of a resumption of hunting minke whales which, they claim, can easily survive a limited cull.

Norway is highly unlikely to cease whaling any time soon. Potentially more dangerous to the survival of the species, however, are the efforts by pro-whaling nations, particularly Japan, to fundamentally alter voting patterns at the IWC.

All three of the major whaling nations have argued forcefully that the moratorium should be replaced by a sustainable management plan. Rather than relying only on the persuasion of existing members, Japan—whose government has described whaling as a ‘noble tradition’ and ‘an issue of national pride’—has actively recruited traditionally non-whaling nations to the commission. The members of the IWC now include Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Benin, Surinam, Grenada, Tuvalu and—most bizarrely of all—land-locked Mongolia.

From just nine pro-whaling votes out of 55 in 2000, the annual meeting in 2003 saw 21 nations out of 57 cast votes in support of an end to the moratorium. Each of the nations who have suddenly developed an interest in resuming whaling is widely reported to have received substantial development aid from Japan. Adding to the problem is the fact that commission members such as Canada and Greece have allowed their membership to lapse and were not eligible to vote. Although 75 per cent of the commission’s members must agree in order for the moratorium to be overturned, such are the rapid gains of the pro-whaling lobby that it is believed the moratorium could be under threat as early as 2005.

At the July 2004 IWC meeting in Sorrento, Italy, the only victory for anti-whaling nations was that Japan lost a vote for the final vote to be held in secret (29 votes to 24). Many anti-whaling countries feared that smaller nations who publicly oppose whaling would forge secret backroom deals with Japan to cast a pro-whaling vote. The only agreement to arise from the commission meeting was to return with a ‘final’ management plan, complete with costings, by the next meeting in 2005. Japan (who resumed ‘scientific’ whaling in 1987) and Iceland (who did likewise in 2003) have threatened to withdraw from the commission unless such a plan is enacted and the moratorium ended.

In the meantime, environmentalists fear that the ongoing commercial whaling activities of Norway, Iceland and Japan, and the latter’s vote-buying campaign, are seriously eroding confidence in the commission. Such actions have also prevented the setting up of new whale sanctuaries in the South Atlantic and South Pacific.

Conservationists highlight both a history of false reporting by whaling nations and a fundamental difference between supposedly safe quotas and enforceable limits which will work in practice. This is a particular concern when there is little concrete, scientific evidence to suggest that whale stocks have sufficiently recovered. In strictly economic terms, it seems not to matter in the debate that whales may be worth more alive than dead, given the massive growth in whale-watching tourism.

It is increasingly unlikely that the moratorium will be extended to become permanent. This grim conclusion rests on the near-certainty that if the moratorium is extended, pro-whaling nations would simply withdraw from the commission and return to the days of unregulated commercial whaling. Unlike more innocent days when conservation for its own sake was sufficient, the harsh, strategic necessities of whale politics ensure that some form of distasteful compromise appears inevitable.

And yet, for all of the talk of sustainable harvests and controlled culling, there is one remaining element which keeps alive the spirit of the soon-to-be naiive days of the moratorium: whales inspire awe and are special. They have come, perhaps more than any other creature on earth, to symbolise the epic and profound struggle of the natural world and its dogged survival in the face of human encroachment. In the words of Susan Lieberman, ‘Few animals inspire such awe as whales … yet relatively few other animals have suffered so severely at human hands’.

If there shall come a time when whales—described by one commentator as ‘benevolent aliens’—do become extinct, their passing will perhaps be the most tragic of the many extinctions which we have inflicted upon the planet. Possessed of such size, grace and mystery, perhaps they alone can inspire the same awestruck silence usually reserved for the vast oceans which they inhabit. Perhaps whales alone have a capacity to at once remind us of eternity and of all that we have lost.  

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid.



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