So Iceland is back at it, joining Norway and Japan in the atavistic habit of killing whales. I find it interesting that this subject is so often framed as a scientific one, evidenced by the number of posts on the subject my fellow SciBloggers. Is there in fact a scientific argument against killing whales? Yes, but it’s not the one that most people make.
When it comes to certain species, most notably the fin and minke whales that are the target of the Icelandic and Norwegian whaling fleets, the world’s populations can certainly handle the minimal, self-assigned, quotas. There are tens of thousands of fin whales and hundreds of thousands of minkes, although probably not as many as recently assumed.
Similarly, Japan’s target harvests are no real threat to the survival of any of the species the country’s whalers go after, including sei and Bryde’s whales.
Instead, it’s what happens to whales after they find their way to market that’s the problem. For more than a decade now, genetic analysis of whale meat on Japanese markets has shown evidence of widespread fraud. The simple truth is, unlike pork and beef, it’s not so easy to tell the meat of one species of whale from another, a situation that allows whalers to catch just about anything from the order cetacea, and call it whatever the law allows them to catch.
Remember that whaling is an opportunistic method of obtaining food — whalers are sorely tempted to harpoon whatever comes along, rather than wait for the right species. And of course, catch and release is not an option.
So even though minkes are doing relatively well, there’s no guarantee that what’s labeled “minke” isn’t actually blue whale, or humpback or even North Pacific right whale, all of which are far less numerous. Indeed, there are probably only a few dozen Pacific right whales left. Another species on the brink is the Eastern Arctic bowhead, of which only a few hundred to a couple of thousand remain. In such populations the loss of even a handful of individuals can be catastrophic.
It turns out that this is exactly what the genetic analysis in Japan has shown has been going on for years. A significant proportion of the whale meat on sale in Japan comes from endangered populations. Curiously, the Japanese government, which only allows whaling under the (ludicrous) guise of a scientific study — with the meat being sold for public consumption so that it isn’t wasted — has demonstrated no interest in cracking down on the offending retailers.
The situation in Iceland and Norway isn’t quite the same, in part because there is such a small market for whale meat in the first place. But the problem remains: how do we ensure that whalers take only those species they are expressly allowed to take? Should whaling return to the large-scale commercial operation that nearly wiped out several species last century — as Japan and Iceland would love to see — there is no way to ensure that pirate whalers won’t take advantage of the market.
This is the wisdom and logic behind the ban on the ivory market, despite the large number of elephants in a couple of African nations. Sure, it is possible to sustainably manage a legal elephant cull in Zimbabwe, but controlling poachers is not. When some species are at risk, you have to shut down the entire industry. Plus, we’re talking about the open ocean here, folks. There are not ocean cops (other than Paul Watson, that is.) And the recent history of pirate fisheries isn’t exactly cause for reduced concern.
Of course, one can also argue that firing a harpoon into a large mammal and dragging it aboard a boat is horribly cruel. But that’s not science. Just common decency.