Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Harpooning For Dummies

As has been reported by myself and others, Iceland has resumed commercial whaling, killing an endangered fin whale earlier this week. However, Norway and Japan have been engaging in commercial whaling, either blatantly or under the auspices of “scientific research,” for quite some time. This is quite a sensitive issue in global politics, involving high emotions on either side. Pro-whalers argue that some commercial whale populations have rebounded and are viable for sustainable hunting, while anti-whalers argue that populations are over-inflated and outdated by the IWC and that the method used to kill whales is cruel and agonizing. So, I ask: how does a whaling vessel take down a whale, and could it be considered cruel? The pain and suffering of “for-food” animals is always taken into consideration when devising standards and methods for their slaughter. Even the mice and guinea pigs that I work with in my lab have very strict codes for their care and sacrifice, which are regulated and reviewed by animal care committees. Inhumane and painful deaths are not allowed even for these rodents. Shouldn’t we determine the same standards of care for the much more intelligent whales? (More under the fold….)

(Picture of traditional harpoon, usually not in use anymore. Grenade-tipped harpoons are now preferred.)

The International Whaling Commission states:

During the past ten years both Japan and Norway have made major improvements in their whale killing technology. This includes advances in the triggering mechanism for the explosive grenades used in the minke whale hunts, and the introduction of an improved explosive material, penthrite, which has greater power than the traditional black powder. These improvements are such that they are now also being introduced into the aboriginal subsistence whaling hunts in Alaska and Greenland. Any assessment of the efficiency, usually measured by the time to death in the whaling operations, relies on a somewhat subjective indication of insensibility and death. There is still a need to relate the cause of death to the observed time to death, as well as the collection of information on the physiological status of hunted animals.

(Emphasis mine.)

Essentially, what they are saying is that while explosive harpoons are agreed upon to be effective and lethal, whether or not they are humane or quick is still not known. In addition, with explosive harpoons are recommended, they are by no means the only method used. Methods described here in the 2003 Report of the Workshop on Whale Killing Methods and Associated Welfare Issues in Berlin listed hand-held harpoons, cannon harpoons, aboriginal dart guns, and even rifles shot at whales.

In this report is also a lot of whining from Japan about the cost of the explosive-tipped harpoons, leading me to believe that they may not be enthusiastic about using them. The “Norwegian grenades” are the explosive harpoons.

As Japan had stated that one of the most important factors for not introducing the Norwegian grenades in the
Japanese hunt was cost, Germany commented that though this might be a consideration in commercial whaling
activities, scientific whaling operations should use the best available techniques irrespective of their cost. Japan replied that in principle it agreed that one should always use the best available alternative and had therefore tested the Norwegian grenade. However if an alternative device could show the same results, they would adopt the less expensive one even if it is scientific research.

Also from the report, where TTD = time to death, was info about aboriginal methods of whaling in Greenland:

In the harvest from 3 to 100 bullets were used per whale. In the 2002 harvest season, an average of 52 bullets were used per whale, an improvement over the 2000 harvest (average 64 bullets per whale) and 2001 harvest (average 54 bullets). In 2002, the average number of darting gun projectiles used on the gray whales was 2.7 projectiles per whale shot by darting gun. The maximum estimated TTD for gray whales was 56 minutes, and for bowhead whales 53 minutes. Mean TTD for gray whales was 32 minutes, and for bowhead whales 41 minutes.

In addition, a few months ago, a film which followed a Norwegian whaling expedition was released, exposing the cruelty of current whaling methods.

The footage – filmed by investigators from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and the Environmental Investigation Agency – is of the slaughtering of a minke whale by a Norwegian vessel, in defiance of an international agreement.

Although it was hit by an explosive-tipped grenade in good hunting conditions, the whale took more than two and a half minutes to die. Campaigners say this proves that whaling can never be carried out humanely. In less good conditions, where it is harder to aim harpoons accurately, many whales take 10 minutes or more to perish.

Leah Garc├ęs, WSPA’s director of campaigns, says: “Despite this hunt taking place in optimum weather conditions, the kill is not instantaneous. This would not be an acceptable ‘time of death’ for a farm animal, so why should it be permitted for whales?”

Obviously, while explosive harpoons are preferred, this is not a standardized whaling practice. But, more disturbingly, even the most effective method has still no data to back up whether it is humane. This distinction would never be allowed in any other slaughtering practice, so why whales?


  1. #1 Shelley Batts
    October 24, 2006

    Also from the IWC…..seems that Norway is attempting to be more pro-active about this issue….

    In the Norwegian minke whale hunt similar control
    procedures to slaughterhouses are applied. Authorised
    personnel control all the hunting gear and the hunters must
    pass practical shooting tests prior to each whaling season.
    In addition, since 1993 the TTD of each whale hunted in
    Norway has been recorded as a part of a research
    programme. The programme has now ended and preliminary results show that according to IWC criteria about 80% of the animals are recorded as instantaneously dead. These studies include inter alia neuropathological investigations of hunted minke whales, which have shown
    that the weapons in current use in Norway are highly
    effective in causing permanent brain damage of sufficient
    severity to account for a rapid loss of sensibility. The study has also confirmed that the IWC criteria are not always met in animals that are unconscious or dead. However, from an animal welfare point of view the current criteria of death in whales seem to function well in practice, as the hunters will not hesitate to re-shoot the animal if any doubt exists that it is still alive…

  2. #2 luca
    October 25, 2006

    I am not usually pro-animal welfare, not ’cause I approve of cruelty towards animal, but since I believe many of them (animal-activist) do think of animals as ‘pet’.

    But I am happy to make an exception here… I would be happy to accept one or two killings per year to homor some ancient tradition, but the hunting for food of an endangered and intelligent (to what extent I ignore, though) species is unacceptable on my ethical workbook…

    thanks shelley for bringing this up…

  3. #3 david@tokyo
    October 25, 2006

    > Obviously, while explosive harpoons are preferred, this is not a standardized whaling practice.

    It is standard in developed nations / regions.

    The so-called “aboriginal” / “subsistence” whalers get lucky it seems. But then, if you don’t have any better methods available to you, what can you do?

    > But, more disturbingly, even the most effective method has still no data to back up whether it is humane.

    “Humane” is subjective, really. I go back to what I was saying on your previous thread about whales clearly leading better lives than many other animals that humans interact with. It seems oxymoronic to consider a definition of “humane” which refers specifically to killing an animal.

    > This distinction would never be allowed in any other slaughtering practice, so why whales?

    Whales are hunted, not farmed.

    Instead of comparing whaling with slaughterhouse killing methods (which are in fact, not as great as you might have been led to believe:, it’s more realistic to compare whaling with other hunting activities.

    For example, perhaps you could try to find some figures on Australia kangaroo culling practices. I hear that they shoot them from helicopters (moving platform, just like with whaling), and indeed annecdotal evidence is that many kangaroos are left to suffer, without taking a second shot to finish them off.

    No one seems to care about Kangaroos in Australia though, least of all the Australia conservation minister, who has refused to present data on those killing methods to the IWC working group on killing methods for comparison.

    Again, for anyone interested to watch a whale kill, there is one in this video here, which I also linked to on the previous post.

  4. #4 Lazarou
    October 25, 2006

    I would be happy to accept one or two killings per year to homor some ancient tradition

    Are you being serious here or is my sarcasm detector all busted? You’d happily sanction the deaths of innocent creatures just to satisfy some outdated ritual and a bit of bloodlust? Essentially it’s okay to kill animals for no good reason but if it’s for food then it’s not allowed?

    Afraid I don’t understand that line of thought at all…

  5. #5 Steinn Sigurdsson
    October 27, 2006

    Does this apply to all hunting?
    Whales are wild mammals, and the fair comparison is not with lab animals or farm animals being slaughtered en masse, but other similar hunts.
    For example: Pennsylvania permits hunting of deer using bow and arrow only; and I hear there is a trendy new hunt, where only a medium length hunting knife is permitted, although that is arguably kinder than the “pen hunts” of exotics in southwestern wildlife ranches.

    The most endangered of the whale species is probably the atlantic northern right whale, stock is estimated at ~ 300 which is borderline for recovery. One of the biggest threats to the right whale is commercial shipping out of Boston and Halifax – propellers slice the whale open, like this:
    so that container ships can bring in large volumes of plastic chinese trinkets.
    Is that cruel?

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