Oh those poor whales

The plight of just two humpback whales that got themselves lost up the Sacramento River has got the nation transfixed. This sort of thing happens every few years. Back in 1988, it was three gray whales trapped in the ice on the north slope of Alaska. It's curious how we, as in news directors, get all worked up about two members of the species, while Japan's plans to kill 50 of them deliberately garner almost no attention. Not that we're hypocrites, of course...

In fact, the United States has consistently opposed Japan's plans to kill 50 humpbacks, which are listed by the IUCN as still vulnerable, thanks to decades of aggressive whaling. But have you read any preview stories leading up to this year's International Whaling Commission meeting (webcast link here), which gets under way Monday? Probably not, even though an American city, Anchorage, Alaska, is hosting it. I guess one story a day on whales is enough for most publications and news hours.

Every IWC meeting lately has revolved around Japan's efforts to expand its alleged scientific whaling program. Each year more species are added to the shopping list and each year the Japanese get a little bit closer to overturning the moratorium on whaling that's been in place for a couple of decades -- a moratorium that's the only reason so many species of great whales are no longer on the brink of extinction.

I wrote about last year's IWC meeting for New Scientist a year ago, and reproduce it here, as little has changed since then. While marine biologists try yet another tactic to convince the wayward Sacramento whales to get back where they belong, bigger issues are brewing.

THE International Whaling Commission has become a liability. It is supposed to stand for the conservation of whales and the policing of whale hunting. What it really stands for is the relentless abuse of marine biology.

Take this year's meeting of the IWC, which wrapped up on the island of St Kitts last week. It made little progress in the battle between hunters and conservationists. Japan, Norway, Iceland and their allies, which are eager to resume industrial-scale hunting of whales, once again found themselves without the three-quarters majority they would have needed to vote out the 20-year-old moratorium. Their opponents also came up short, failing to make a convincing argument as to why whales should not be sustainably hunted and failing to block a vote renouncing past conservation policies (New Scientist, 24 June, p 14).

The result was stalemate - no surprise there. Yet beneath the headlines, something worrying is going on in the IWC. Anyone who cares about the integrity of science should be appalled at how the science of wildlife conservation is being twisted and ignored by both sides.

The Japanese fleet kills hundreds of minke whales each year under the guise of "scientific whaling". This is allowed under the moratorium despite the fact that no reputable scientist backs the notion that the practice contributes anything of value to our understanding of minke ecology. Japan recently added the much larger, and much less numerous, fin and sperm whales to its "study" protocols. Even more audacious is Greenland, which this year raised the possibility of taking some of the world's most endangered whales, the eastern Arctic bowhead.

The whaling nations argue that we need to kill more whales because they are eating our fish. It's an idea that enjoys little support among marine ecologists. While no one dismisses the possibility of a few local conflicts, a global analysis by a team at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre in Vancouver, Canada, showed that whales and fishing fleets rarely seek the same prey (New Scientist, 15 May 2004, p 6). This argument recalls the bizarre proposition that seals were to blame for the collapse of the North Atlantic cod. What supporters of such arguments forget is that predators and prey maintained some kind of equilibrium for millennia before factory fishing fleets came along.

The dubious science of the whalers is mirrored by those opposed to whaling, who consistently claim that estimates of even the plentiful minke populations - usually put at hundreds of thousands - are exaggerated. They imply that no species can withstand even limited whaling. Yet as the Inupiat of Alaska have demonstrated for decades, healthy populations can tolerate well-managed hunts. There are now about 8000 bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population (in US, Canadian and Russian waters), enough to warrant the quota of 82 that the US National Marine Fisheries Service has set this year.
"The dubious science of the whalers is mirrored by those opposed to whaling"

Equally alarming is the tendency of conservation-minded IWC members to overlook the science that does support their case. Because the open seas are almost impossible to police, there is no guarantee that the catch a whaling fleet brings to port contains what the whalers say it does. In the 1990s, marine biologists used DNA analysis to track the sale in Japan of whale meat from endangered species that the "scientific" whalers insist they aren't taking.

The bottom line is that we cannot trust whalers to take only those whales they are allowed to take, either because they are not equipped to distinguish between populations or because they don't care which species they kill. For species teetering on the brink of extinction, such as the northern Pacific right whale, the loss of even a handful of individuals could prove catastrophic. That is a sensible reason to maintain a moratorium, yet conservationists rarely make the case.

There is another argument against whaling: it's cruel. This is the true motivation of most of whaling's opponents. It is not, however, a scientific - or at least a conservation biology - argument. Just as politics and economics drive one side of the debate, emotion drives the other.

After 60 years, it should now be clear that the IWC, officially dedicated to "the proper conservation of whale stocks" and "the orderly development of the whaling industry" is not succeeding in either task, primarily because it is allowing politics, economics and sentiment to take priority over science. It is time it was disbanded, so that authority for whaling can be transferred to a body that respects the primacy of research in conservation management. It won't be easy. Even CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is the logical alternative now that it has agreed to regulate commercially valuable marine wildlife, is essentially a trade organisation. But it would do better than the IWC, which for those who would save the whales has become a dangerous distraction.

From issue 2558 of New Scientist magazine, 01 July 2006, page 24


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You claim that it is a "fact" that "no reputable scientist backs the notion that [Japan's research whaling] contributes anything of value to our understanding of minke ecology."

Sorry to be harsh, but all I can say is that you are clearly extremely poorly informed if you actually believe that.

"The bottom line is that we cannot trust whalers to take only those whales they are allowed to take, either because they are not equipped to distinguish between populations or because they don't care which species they kill.

Ditto for this...

Your information from the 1990's is also out of date. I suggest you ought to bring your arguments against whaling into the year 2007, if you are so keen to cling to them.


this is just bullshit. Of all the things to spend money, resources, time and professional skills on, we use it for this!? Give me a break, two whales swam up river and its got the whole nation in a huffy. I am a compassionate person but honestly, they are on their death bed anyways why rush them out to sea to die? Ridiculous.

Congratulations to Kevin Rudd for having the balls to stare Japan in the eye & say, "no more". Howard should have done it years ago. It just makes economic sense, if not simply for the ethical reasons. Humpback Whales rake in millions of tourist dollars. Why on Earth would we put that at risk? The main reason Whale murders should cease? No living Being that is capable of Loving, Caring, has high regard for Family values & feels pain, just like us, should be subjected to unspeakable torture & horror for prolonged periods of time (I recently read a Whale had suffered for over 43 minutes after being harpooned twice & shot several times) before finally losing its grip on Life.

By Richard Mann (not verified) on 27 May 2007 #permalink

This is getting ridiculus, It is well known that some whale populations are growing at a rate of 10% per year with a very healthy stock which is eating it's way throught other stocks lower in the food chain, creating a imbalance in the ecosystem which will lead to starvation untill nature finds a balance in a few years.
What's next, gonna ban the fishing industry also?
Then we have those whale species that truly are endangered and are very much in danger of extinction, but still the conservationists maintain a full blown out protection policy for ALL whale species regardless of theyr LOCAL population to maintain a stailmate, Do I belive the "endangered specie list" which is in many parts based on GLOBAL population of some species, not in a million years...brilliant, end result will probably be horrible for all.

By someone somewhere (not verified) on 29 May 2007 #permalink