Battling With Whaling

blue whale.jpg

On the 12th of July, there were reports and photos that a whaling company in Iceland had hunted, landed and begun to butcher a blue whale. The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever set foot (or fin) on planet Earth, growing up to 30 metres long and weighing up to 173 tonnes. Whilst it can be found all over the planet in every ocean from pole to pole, it is estimated that there are only between 10,000 to 25,000 and are included as an ‘endangered’ species on the IUCN’s Red List. This number is in sharp relief to the estimated 250,000 to 350,000 that were roaming the oceans in the 1800s before the whaling industry took off.

In the mid-19th century, technology hadn’t advanced quite enough for fishermen to catch the faster species of whale, such as the blue whale or fin whale, and instead more sedate whales such as right whales were targeted. Once explosive harpoons became available, there was little stopping the hunters from targeting whatever whales they wanted. It made the most economical sense to start with the largest whales, so blue whale and fin whale populations dropped dramatically. Fishermen then changed target because the population sizes became too small for them to successfully hunt enough. It wasn’t until 1946 that the first quotas to limit the trade of whale products was introduced, and it then took until 1986 for the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to ban all commercial whaling, over 100 years after the beginning of the trade.

Today, only a handful of countries continue to hunt whales and this has led to the beginnings of a recovery in population sizes of these wonderful creatures. However, countries like Iceland, Japan and Norway have continued to hunt whales. Iceland originally joined the IWC, leaving in 1992 only to return in 2004 with an objection to the moratorium (or prohibition) of whale hunting. In 2006, commercial whaling resumed with the hunting of fin and minke whales. Norway uses a loophole to avoid the whaling moratorium and continues to allow the hunting of up to 1000 minke whales a year (although it must be noted that less than half of this quota is used). Japan, has a ‘scientific’ whaling fleet that allows them to catch 200 minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 100 sei whales and 10 sperm whales every year for ‘research’. Once this research has been carried out, the meat can be sold on to the market, leading to a lot of doubt about the innocence of their intentions.

These hunts are all within the terms of the international agreement, irrelevant of whether we all agree with any hunting at all. The issue arising from Iceland's recent slaughter of a blue whale is not only the death of a whale but the death of a protected whale. The argument from the IWC's side is that the whale is a blue and fin whale hybrid, which does exist although it is rare. DNA tests have since concluded that this was indeed a blue/fin whale hybrid meaning the whalers are unlikely to face any repercussions. However, this hybrid status also means the meat can not be exported to Japan for financial gain - but was it exported and sold before the declaration of hybrid status? I guess we might never know. 

It is time that these countries no longer supported the hunting and trade of some of the world’s most majestic animals. Instead, why not continue to support and develop the tourist industry that whale watching supports? This industry is worth $3 billion to the global economy every year and, in a whale hunting nation like Iceland, around 25% of tourists head out on a whale watching excursion whilst in the country (I did when I was there - see photos). It seems utterly logical for those who spend their time catching whales to instead utilise their boats and skills to make money showing people these beautiful animals in their natural habitat. The whale hunting industry is the minority. To replace it with something that is just as profitable but also educational like whale watching, we would take one final step to eliminating this butchery.

Making this problem worse are the countless other examples of this sort of butchery in other marine mammals like herding of dolphins and porpoises to their untimely death (as seen in The Cove), or hunting sea otters to near extinction for their fur, to poaching of protected blubbery manatees. On top of this you have a multitude of other animals and plants being exploited for quoted medicinal or remedial properties that have never been scientifically proven. Hopefully soon we will learn, as a species, that nature is best when it is flourishing - not when we are making some quick cash from it. 

Rufus SullivanComment