How not to save the whales

minkeIt's that time of year, when the International Whaling Commission gets together and pretends its decisions will be based on the best available science. In addition to poorly serving the planet's cetaceans, these annual gatherings are embarrassments for both the pro-whaling members and the animal-rights gang. It's also a case study in the politicization and abuse of the scientific method.

For those familiar with the IWC, it's the recognized world authority on whaling. Formed about 60 years ago after it became bleedingly obvious that the industry required regulation -- the near extinction of the grey and blue whales, among other species, were a big hint. Its ostensible raison d'être is "to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry." In other words, it was supposed to do for whales what Trout Unlimited would do for freshwater sport fishing if it was in charge.

By the time the IWC finally got around to declaring a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1982 (it took effect four years later), Greenpeace had already stirred up so much empathy around the world for the plight of whales that most members of the IWC were no longer interested in protecting whales as a means to allow for the sustainable resumption of whaling, but as an end it of itself.

At this year's meeting, the prelims for which are currently underway in St. Kitts, everyone expect a turning of the tables. The anti-whaling members could very easily loose their majority on the commission, as pro-whaling Japan, Norway and Iceland have finally bought off enough new members, most of whom are tiny island states and land-locked countries with no economic interest in the subject, to win a narrow majority of their own. This won't effect the moratorium, as overturning it would require a three-quarters vote, which the whalers don't have a hope of attracting anytime soon. But with a simple majority, they will be able to introduce secret ballots and sabotage efforts to maintain whale sanctuaries.

Why is any of this important? Two reasons. First, anyone who cares about the integrity of science should be appalled at how conservation biology is twisted by both the whalers and the whale-huggers. Japan kills hundreds of minke whales (the smallest of the "great" whales, pronounced MIN-kee, and pictured above) each year under the "scientific" loophole in the IWC moratorium, despite the absence of any reputable scientist who backs the notion that the practice contributes anything of value to our understanding of minke biology. And they recently branched out into taking several other species, including fin and sperm whales, which are far less numerous.

Pro-whaling propaganda also suggests that we need to kill more whales because they're competing with humans for fish. It would be a great argument, if it held any water. But it doesn't. No more than the bizarre proposition that seals are to blame for the collapse of the North Atlantic cod. I've always wondered: what's so hard to understand about the simple idea that predators and prey managed to maintain some kind of equilibrium for millennia before humans came along?

The anti-whaling forces, for their part, consistently make the argument that estimates of even the plentiful minke populations, usually pegged at hundreds of thousands, are exaggerated, and imply that no species can stand even limited degrees of whaling. But as the Alaskan Inupiat (Eskimos) have demonstrated in their north coast bowhead whale hunt, it is quite possible to take dozens of whales each year from a population numbering around 8,000 on a sustainable basis. Clearly some whaling can be tolerated if all you're interested in is numbers.

Second, there actually is a very real threat to whales in general, including the populous minkes, but one that isn't getting the attention it deserves. The problem of "illegal, unreported and unregulated" extraction of marine resources is not unique to whaling. Because the open seas are very hard to police, it is almost impossible to guarantee that what whalers bring home to port is what they say it is. Respectable biologists have for years been documenting the sale in Japan of whale meat from endangered species that the Japanese "scientific" whalers promise they aren't taking. Here's a good story from the New York Times from 1994. Not much has changed since then. See also:

Baker, C. S., M. L. Dalebout, B. C. Congdon and G. M. Lento. 1999. Molecular genetic identification of whale and dolphin products for sale in Japan, 1998-1999. Report to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (SC/51/015).

Baker, C.S. and Palumbi, S.R. 1994. Which whales are hunted? A molecular genetic approach to monitoring whaling. Science 265: 1538-1539.

In Canada's arctic, Inuit hunters are posing a similar threat to the country's most endangered population of beluga whales. Although the quote for Ungava Bay belugas is zero, some still get taken in hunts for neighboring species in Hudson Strait. The scientific solution is to halt all beluga hunts in the region, but the importance of belugas to the Inuit of northern Quebec, both to their diet and their culture, is such that the Canadian government is loath to go that far.

A similar challenge faces wildlife managers in the Pacific northwest, where the only viable way to protect the most threatened salmon stocks is to ban fishing all for species and runs that use the same spawning rivers, including those that aren't at risk right now. I was tat in on a scientific advisory panel meeting for Canadian salmon stocks back in the 1990s. That very suggestion was made by the panel, but the government representative just shook his head and said "that's not going to happen."

The bottom line is we can't trust whalers to take only those whales they're allowed to take.

Of course, there also is another argument against whaling: it's cruel. That's not a scientific, or least, a conservation biology argument. The animal-welfare case is, however, the true motivation of those who would maintain the moratorium. I suggest they should either be honest about that or put forward solid scientific arguments.

The alternative is to find another forum to save the whales. The way things are going, the IWC's integrity isn't long for this world.


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Living in the Pacific Northwest and keeping up on much of the policy on salmon preservation, I think that the policy was aggressive, but it is sustaining species and populations. There are a lot of vocal opponents of that aggressive policy, but an aggressive stance was appropriate and I think it could be used in the whaling issue as well.