Troubling drop in whale population

There's a reason the Japanese, Norwegian and Icelandic whaling fleets mostly take the smallest of the great whales ;;;;; whalers had taken so many of the bigger species that only the minke could tolerate any kind of hunt. There are supposed to be hundred of thousands of them out there, just waiting to be exploited by responsible, sustainable whaling operations. But wait...

This past weekend comes news from Iceland of a dramatic drop in minke whale number in the country's waters.

According to a whale count from 2001 compiled by aircraft, there were 43,600 minkes in Icelandic waters, but last years count returned only 10,000 to 15,000 minkes in certain areas, which could be interpreted as a 24 percent decline in the total stock.

Gisli Vikingsson, one of the authors of the report, said that the matter had been discussed in the Science Committee North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission and it is believed that the likeliest explanation for this decline is that the minkes have migrated elsewhere for food. (Icelandic Review Online, May 31, 2008)

It took the eastern population of grey whales decades to recover from what most whale biologists who have studied the records think was the veritable brink of extinction (although something very strange is going on with them now). Humpback populations are only now showing signs of robust growth. The status of blue whales is less certain, with extirpation almost certain in some waters, but signs of limited recovery elsewhere. The minke, in contrast, was supposed to be doing OK.

Of course, the only reason they were spared the ravages of the whaling era was there were simply too many larger whales around, beasts that brought much healthier profit margins for the Captain Ahabs of the day. If the international community hadn't put a stop to the whole-scale slaughter in 1967, there is little doubt that the minkes would have been next on the list. But that didn't happen So what's going on now?

One interpretation of the Marine Research Institute's finding, by an anti-whaling group in Iceland, blames changes in food suppy, "which is assumed to be the result of the increasing water temperature."

It's still far too early to tie what may or may not be going on with the minkes to global warming. There's always regional and natural cycles to consider. And this is just one report based on always-suspect cetacean population survey data. But it's worth paying attention. If the minkes go, we'll know something is very wrong with the oceans. And we won't be able to pin all the blame on the Japanese.


More like this

Here is a link to the IWC report summarising some of the lab findings of investigations in "stinky whales" (their words...) with a couple of hypotheses about what is causing the stink.
It seems the stink is caused by ketones, alcohols and aldehydes, and hypothesised causes include limited food supply, new food source of prey consumed, disease, or abnormal metabolic pathways (or something else again). Many of the Grey Whales with the stinky symptoms were found to have seaweed or cod in their bellies when examined, which is apparently unusual for this species.

I live in Japan and to some degree know how this issue is viewed here. In point form:

* Whaling regulation is completely inconsistent, allowing some populations (inuits, for instance) to hunt whales - with harpoons and all - due to long-standing tradition, while other, like Japanese, are forbidden despite having the same long-standing whaling traditions. Neither population needs it for economic or sustainability reasons.

* Arguments are frequently about how whales are noble, or intelligent or good. That is completely beside the point - if we forbade killing and eating animals because they're intelligent and social we wouldn't be eating pigs, who are smarter than whales. And if we had world-wide regulation of meat production because it offends people, say goodbye to pork, beef, horse, shellfish...

* Those same nations that protest so wildly are famously incapable of stopping the overfishing or destruction of other species. But it's apparently easier to show environmental credentials by protesting another country's actions than to do anything that will actually cost you something.

Here the whole thing smacks of more than a little self-serving hypocrisy - Japan hunted whale just fine for centuries, then some Western nations nearly depleted the worldwide stocks, and not even for the meat, but just for the oil. And now the same nations that caused this disaster to begin with wants the Japanese to give it up.

So what to do?

* Because the whaling regulations are a sad joke with absolutely zero legitimacy in the eyes of the people affected (due to the points above), continued pressure actually increases the determination to continue whaling. It has become a political question of national self-determination, not about the eating or not of some sea-living mammals. As newspapers have argued lately, should Japan have the right to stop Australia from hunting kangaroo, when they determine numbers are becoming low? Should Israel and middle-eastern countries be able to stop the US and Europe from slaughering and killing pigs because they are social and intelligent, and eating them is offensive to them?

* Whale meat has long traditions. But it has also a long tradition of being poor people's food. As recently as the 1950's, whale meat was quite common in school lunches, for instance (mostly served to those unable to bring food from home), and it is through those eyes many Japanese see the meat. And objectively it isn't very good - it's stringy and very fatty; great source of protein and energy, obviously, but rather at odds with current tastes and health concerns.

So, say that the regulatory system is changed. Leave the "whales are noble" stuff to college dorm posters; cute has nothing to do with this. Set coastal whaling within each country's territory to be exempt from any international regulation. Nearly all traditional whaling has been coastal; high-seas hunting was only started in the nineteenth century by western nations hunting whale oil.

That would largely defuse the issue in Japan at least. It would confirm the right to cultural and economic self-determination which is what this question has become here, and allow for a level of whaling. And that level will be low - as I wrote above, most people here aren't very fond of it, and absent any patriotic or other outside reasons to support whaling, this loosening of coastal regulation is all but guaranteed to lower the actual whaling take to a fraction of today. Compare with dolphin hunting, which is also a traditional catch - it is today really only performed in one place anymore, under rather heavy local criticism, and largely unable to actually sell the meat (they serve it at local schools since nobody else wants to buy it).

In short, remove the issues of self-determination and the self-serving, hypocritical imposition of moral judgement, and you'll have whaling decrease to a fraction of today, and likely die a natural death from alck of interest a generation from now.