In my Topics in Marine Science class that I teach at Western Washington University, we spend a week on marine mammals and a portion of that time talking about whaling. We discuss the use of whale oil for illuminants, the 1930s as the Whaling Olympic era, the devastation of certain whale populations, and the formation of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). We examine the shift in values as a world that was largely pro-whaling became largely anti-whaling and how science (e.g., the discovery of whale song) and conservation (e.g., Greenpeace) played a role in that ethical shift.
I ask my students to examine this graph, which tells the sad story of the fate of the southern hemisphere blue whale. The maroon bars are historical whaling hunts and the blue line is an estimate of former blue whale abundance based on a population models by Line Christensen, formerly of the UBC Fisheries Centre. The current southern blue whale population is less than 5% of the population pre-whaling.
I ask the students if we can generalize from this trend. I present genetic research, such as the study in Science by Roman & Palumbi, which used mitochondrial DNA to reconstruct former population sizes and confirms that many whale populations are mere crumbs compared to times past. I show them similar graphs for North Atlantic humpback and Northwest Pacific gray whales and they quickly realize that the blue whale’s fate is not unique.
Then I show my students a similar graph for North Atlantic minke whales, which have also been called the “cockroaches of the sea” by one Japanese official.
And I ask them to explain why we don’t want to whale minke whales. They look at the graph and they give insightful responses such as: “maybe the minke population was much higher in the time before the start of the x-axis” (and, since we have also discussed shifting baselines, this is a plausible and intelligent explanation, but is not the reason); or, “maybe the population decrease in the 1950s and ’60s made managers nervous”; or, “maybe it’s because minke whales are small and it is better to catch big whales”.
Actually, the minke whale population is fairly stable and appears to be a rather good example of sustainability (i.e., things stay the same). So why is the international community largely opposed to killing them? Finally, some shy student will suggest that maybe we don’t think killing them is right.
The numbers do not justify why many people (I dare say most) are opposed to killing minke whales. The ethics do. We came to believe that minke whales have the right to live. This sentiment lies outside the boundaries of science.
I am so thankful for the minke example. And I believe my students are, too.
Some scientists are hesitant to discuss ethics (let alone promote their own). As one top scientist recently wrote to me when I proposed to work on a new policy paper together:
I have a very firm personal policy not to put my name on papers or editorials that promote or favour any particular set of values or preferences, and your outline clearly is an attempt to promote conservation values and risk averse policies.
I understand how one’s beliefs can endanger one’s science (take, for instance, the fortunately now unpopular field of eugenics) and how ethical lines can be hazy (as can be the case in the eradication of invasive species). But I also believe in teaching my students about how ethics can trump science in the same way that corrupt politics or corporate greed can.
And I believe the wider one’s ethical umbrella, the better (even if I can also occasionally find vegans who espouse all their particularities annoying).
Eventually, I hope an ethical principle similar to the one for whales can extend to other members of the marine world, as does Carl Safina with his promotion of a sea ethic. And I look forward to the day when we think about fish as more than simply seafood, just as we came to respect the lives of whales–even those considered to be the cockroaches of the sea.
As Daniel Pauly and I wrote in our first paper together:
When whales were on the brink of extinction, the primary avenue of protection was not a campaign in opposition to using whale oil or against eating whales. Whaling ceased after the emergence and wide public acceptance of a ‘whale mythology’, which de-commodified them. The moratorium on whaling, ratified by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), was a direct result of the revulsion toward whaling felt through most of the Western world. It is only when a similar revulsion is felt by the public about the wholesale destruction of fish populations and marine ecosystems that we can hope to save them from our management and our appetite.