The Island of Doubt

Iceland’s whaling obsession

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Katherine Sharpe
    October 26, 2006

    well argued! you’ve convinced me. (not that i was a big whaling fan to begin with, but taking just a few didn’t seem like such a big deal in a prima facie way, you know? but the ivory analogy is illustrative.)

  2. #2 Brynjar
    October 26, 2006

    Iceland only has one proper whaling ship so it should be easy to track what it catches. The rest are some “large” boats that are barely large enough to catch minke whales…

  3. #3 Shelley Batts
    October 26, 2006

    Thanks for bringing this great point up!

  4. #4 Steinn Sigurdsson
    October 27, 2006

    As Brynjar noted, there is only one open ocean whaling ship operating out of Iceland, and it lands the catch at a single station that is an easy driving distance from the capital.
    Anyone can go and check what they caught, the whales are quite distinctive. They advertise when the ship returns with a catch, because people like to go watch.
    If the whaling were done by factory ships, processing at sea, it’d be a different issue; but Iceland has never done that and has no desire to do so; historically whaling there has been coastal whaling.
    Norway had large whaling fleets, but I don’t think they’re in the mood to do that again either.

    You are partly right about the current catches not threatening endangered stocks; the US catch is from a severly endangered stock (albeit one that is recovering rapidly), namely the Greenland Right whale or the Bowhead whale, and to a lesser extent the Gray whale. The US takes more Bowheads from a smaller stock than the new fin whale hunt.

  5. #5 Steinn Sigurdsson
    October 27, 2006

    PS: within the Icelandic Economic Exclusion zone there are extremely efficient cops, namely the coast guard; they are particularly keen to intercept anyone fishing or hunting illegally and very very good at doing so. Every ship and boat in the area is required to report its location and status (daily IIRC) and is tracked. Any ship big enough to catch a full size whale is too big to hide.

    The harpooning is arguably cruel, but arguably no crueler than any other hunt of wild mammals. I can’t say that bow hunting of deer in Pennsylvania is any more humane thant harpooning of a minke whale.

  6. #6 Marco Ferrari
    October 30, 2006

    So, cooking Homarus americanus in boiling water is cruel, and this justifies harpooning whale?
    So, bullfighting is cruel, and this justifies harpooning whales to death?
    So, skinning a snake alive is cruel, and this justifies harpooning whales to death?
    Got the point?

  7. #7 Steinn Sigurdsson
    October 30, 2006

    No, bullfighting, for example is not a wild hunt, it is directed at a captive domestic animal; if you are boiling lobster you have already caught it – and most people would say it is not cruel – most of those who think it is cruel will pith the lobster in case; and, skinning a snake alive is cruel, and if you were to trap a whale alive and skin it you’d be prosecuted. Is tracking a snake and striking at its head with a blade cruel?
    You compare unlike things.

    Is hunting deer with bow and arrow cruel? It is done a walking distance from where I live in the USA? That is like with like – a wild mammal, hit with a projectile that may kill quickly if aimed well, but often leads to a fatal wound and 10-100 minute chase while the animal bleeds out. Cognitively and ecologically deer and whales could be compared, certainly more so than with lobster or snake.
    Oh, and they hunt a LOT of deer. And that is just the bow hunt, far more are shot, right around this time of year too.

    You outraged? Doing anything about it?

  8. #8 g bruno
    November 2, 2006

    Southern Ocean CCCP whale fleets in the 60s. There are many stories that they killed lots of blue whales. No proof, but given other Russian casual attitudes, it seems likely.