Save the whaling

Whaling can be done just as sustainably as other forms of marine harvesting – if we remove our cultural blinkers.

Why is it that the International Whaling Commission condones the slaughter of rare whales by indigenous peoples using what are, arguably, inhumane traditional methods, while ruling against the commercial harvest of more common species by more humane methods?

‘Aboriginal subsistence whaling’, as it’s known, is currently permitted by the commission for Denmark (fin and minke whales), the Russian Federation (grey and bowhead whales), the islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines (humpback whales) and the United States (bowhead and grey whales). A key condition is that meat and other products from the slaughter not be sold.

In the lead-up to a recent meeting of the commission in Ulsan, South Korea, there was no discussion of the number of humpback whales the Grenadines are allowed to kill in the Caribbean – even though this species is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as vulnerable to extinction.

The harvest of smaller species belonging to the suborder Odontoceti (for example, dolphins and pilot whales) is not regulated by the commission and not discussed. This includes, for example, the slaughter of long-finned pilot whales by Danish Farosese fishermen by driving the whales close to the shore, then weighing the animals down with ropes attached to stones. The whales are then stabbed in the blubber with a sharp hook, called a gaff, before being pulled to shore.

Before the Ulsan conference, Australia’s Environment Minister, Ian Campbell, travelled the world railing against the slaughter of whales – concentrating entirely on Norwegian and Japanese whalers. He was reportedly “shocked and saddened by recently broadcast images of whale-cooking classes in Japan”.

I don’t like the idea of killing whales and I am always outraged when science is wrongly invoked to justify politics – as Japan does to justify the continual harvest of minke whales for essentially cultural reasons. But I am just as appalled by ignorance and double standards on this issue.

Norwegian whalers have a long cultural tradition of killing, eating and selling whale products. They argue that minke whaling is an environmentally sound way of producing food, that the harvest of whales is based on scientific advice drawn from the best available knowledge, and that decisions are based on the precautionary principle (because there’s uncertainty about biological data on the number of whales, harvesting is done cautiously and with a reasonable margin of safety, they say). All harvesting is accompanied by monitoring, they add, and systems exist to ensure compliance with regulations.

Whaling was suspended in 1986, and Norway – after some reluctance and faced with the threat of sanctions – also halted whaling the following year. But when, in 1992, the commission’s scientific committee estimated the north-east Atlantic minke whale population had reached 86,700, Norway resumed whaling. Despite this, the number of minke whales in the region is now estimated at 112,000.

Whales are harvested by Norwegians according to a strict quota system based on an understanding of population numbers and dynamics. The 2005 season allows Norwegian whalers 796 minke whales – up from last year’s 670. The whalers must operate in accordance with strict protocols for killing whales which are deemed humane. Whales are said to die instantly when struck by a harpoon tipped with the grenade.