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Scourge of the Deep

Nicholas Holm



SALIENT Feature Writer Nicholas Holm examines how in our opposition of whaling our stances are often as flawed as those that we oppose.
For centuries man and whale have been pitted against one another in a vicious battle for control of the world’s oceans and the resources contained within. From the frozen Arctic North to the sweltering Southern seas, men have brought the battle home to their twisted sea-faring cousins and in the process developed a taste for the oil, meat, baleen and precious, precious ambergris of these swarthy leviathans. With the development of advanced anti-whale technology in the twentieth century the tide of battle turned rapidly in favour of humankind and by the 1930s it was becoming increasingly clear that these once terrifying opponents were in danger of disappearing forever. Several whale species, including the Blue, the Right and the Grey Whale, were teetering near the edge of complete extinction.
In 1946 the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was signed into existence by 42 nations, including New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Norway. More of a ceasefire than a peace treaty, the convention wasn’t an end to whale-human hostilities, but rather a promise by humans to kill whales in a more sustainable fashion. It also gave rise to the International Whaling Committee (IWC), the United Nations Security Council of whale-human relations, in which nations with a vested interest in human-whale relations would debate over potential embargoes, attacks and relations with the whale population in years to come. Prior to 1972 the IWC concentrated on limiting the damage to whale non-combatants: cows and calves, were placed off limit in order to ensure that breeding stocks were not damaged. The goal was to ensure bountiful longterm harvests by setting catch limits below their sustainable yields. However, following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, human whale relations entered another thaw period and in 1986 the IWC announced a diplomatic breakthrough with the adoption of a five-year moratorium that would ban all commercial whaling. The moratorium marked a new period for the IWC, where the committee adopted a protective, rather than regulatory role. This was only made possible by the sheer desperation of the whales’ plight, which had made it abundantly clear, even to pro-whaling nations, that if any form of whale-hunting were to be viable in the future they were going to have to have a time-out. Japan, Norway, Peru and the USSR objected at the time, concerned that any cessation in anti-whale hostilities could result in strategic weaknesses further down the line. However the moratorium did contain provisions for continued whaling in the name of science, with member nations of the IWC retaining the ability to set the limits they deemed necessary for scientific enquiry. Specified indigenous peoples, such as those in St Vincent and the Grenadines, were also permitted to continue their age sold battles with the whale, provided they accord to ancient cultural (whale-hating) and nutritional requirements, though it is unclear what nutrition is to be had from a creature covered in blubber.
Which brings us to our current predicament. Earlier this year the IWC came as close to lifting the moratorium as it has since its inception and the resulting feud between the pro and antiwhaling nations turned nasty. At the heart of the problem is the St Kitts and Nevis declaration, which was drafted with the intention of “normalising” the functions of the IWC. Several countries, New Zealand included, had forgotten that the intention of the IWC was not to keep the whales safe and free and happy for ever and ever. It’s explicit purpose was to regulate and manage whale stocks to ensure that the natural resource that is the whale was harvested in a sustainable and responsible manner. The ‘W’ doesn’t stand for whales; it’s stands forwhaling. Given this, how then can New Zealand justify its continued attempts to transform the IWC into a quasi-whale fancier’s society, and on what grounds is the nation’s anti-whaling policy even founded?
“Science, economics and culture are the basis for our stance on whaling,” explains Chris Carter, the Minister of Conservation, who points out that while many whale populations have recovered, some are still teetering on the edge of endangeredness, if not straight out extinction. “The population of humpbacks, for instance, is only ten to twenty per cent of the size it was 100 years ago. Sperm whales, which are the ones you mostly see off the coast of Kaikoura, are probably only at a third of their population last century. There is a long, long, long way to go before they have fully recovered.” Which leads directly into the economic concerns because without whales, Kaikoura would be little more than Timaru and when was the last time you went to Timaru? “Whale watching has underpinned the economic revival of places like Kaikoura,” explains Carter and he has the figures to back it up. “A report has found that expenditure on whale watching added $120m to the NZ economy in 2004, and it is growing.” However you can’t quite escape the feeling that these scientific and economic justifications are just excuses for the deeper convictions that many New Zealanders hold, that whales are more than just another resource. “Whales are very important culturally to New Zealand, both to Maori and Pakeha,” explains Carter. “They are a special species, and their survival will say a lot about how careless or responsible humankind turns out to be.” Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand’s commissioner on whaling, also argues that the conservation of whale stocks is in itself a desirable outcome and says that he “can see no reason why commercial whaling should resume. There is no need for it.” It is this perception of commercial whaling as a pointless and barbaric exercise that is at the crux of international disagreements over the hunting of whales.
“We think that harvesting or any sustainable use of our resources is justifiable,” argues Geiri Petursson, the honorary consul of Iceland to New Zealand. From his point of view, whales are like any other natural resource, there is nothing inherently wrong with the hunting of whales as long as it is carried out in a humane and sustainable manner. In the Icelandic context, whales are no different from fish, deer or wild fruit. Lars Wensell, the Norwegian Ambassador, agrees, stating that, “people everywhere harvest natural resources.” In Norway, “fishing and hunting are the principle means of livelihood of the coastal population and whaling … is conducted by small family-owned vessels. The hunting therefore takes place only in [Norwegian] waters and out of more than eighty species of marine mammals, Norwegian vessels hunt only one species, the Minke whale,” explains Wensell. The Minke whale is classified as “Near Threatened” by the World Conservation Union, supporting Wensell’s argument that the species, “is in no way an endangered species, and the Norwegian hunt is well within a sustainable level.” As long as the whalers are responsible in their catch and don’t exploit their resource, there is little problem with whaling. Right? “New Zealand and Australia have taken the stance that whaling is somehow morally wrong,” admonishes Petursson. “It’s all emotional, there’s no scientific data to back up their claims, and we don’t think we should be managing any of our resources on emotions only.”
Scientific data on whales isn’t an easy thing to come by. The scientific committee of the IWC is probably the world’s most credible source of research into whale numbers, reviewing and critiquing the data assembled by the member countries. However even they don’t have anywhere near a full understanding of the global whale populations, and, even more problematically, most research is contributed by vested interests. Simon Childerhouse was head of New Zealand’s scientific delegation to the IWC for the last six years and says, “most of the nations who are actually killing whales are generating the data about the species that are being whaled, but for the species that aren’t being whaled the bulk of the information comes from non-whaling nations like New Zealand, Australia, the UK or the US.” Childerhouse suggests that research by whaling countries embraces flawed methods that tend to overestimate whale numbers: “often the techniques that are being used to do that are not the most appropriate ones so they generate fairly unrealistic and unsupported estimates that many of the whaling countries are happy to use because they support their continued whaling, the position that there are lots of whales.” This, of course, could cut both ways and scientists from pro-whaling countries accuse anti-whaling scientists of favouring methods that artificially deflate the number of whales. A position of ignorance also favours anti-whaling groups who can argue that current data is not sufficient to risk a return to whaling, a tactic that could be used to enshrine the status quo almost indefinitely. “Whales are really difficult to study,” argues Childerhouse. “Most of the fishery science occurs on biomasses: when all the fish go into one area and they drive their trawlers over them, they’re able to get at least some idea of how many fish there are there. Whales don’t tend to do that, they do occur on breeding grounds but you know those breeding grounds might be hundreds or thousands of square miles, so the physical difficulty in counting is a really huge ask.” Petursson implies that such failure to conduct research is more a matter of ethical predisposition than methodological limitations and that anti-whaling nations are failing to uphold their commitment to provide scientific evidence to the IWC: “If you read the rules of the international whaling commission, member nations commit to providing the scientific committee with scientific information and unfortunately not many countries have been doing that to date, so that’s why we undertake this limited scientific research.”
“There are large stock piles of whale meat in Japan and Norway yet they want to catch more. In Japan they have started putting whale meat in school lunches in an effort to boost demand.”
Chris Carter
Limited scientific research doesn’t mean breeding whales in a lab though; it involves the use of traditional whaling techniques to catch and kill whales before research can commence. Currently, scientific whaling is only carried out by Japan and Iceland, though Norway did register small research catches in the late 80s and early 90s. Much has been made in the New Zealand media of the final fate of whales killed in the name of the scientific research; many end up on Japanese dinner plates. Whale meat is regarded as a delicacy in Japan and can fetch a high price. Michael, a Vic graduate now living in Tokyo, says, “The locals don’t really care. They genuinely believe that whaling is for scientific purposes. As such, if the whale has already been killed for a good cause, where is the harm in eating it?” This isn’t how its presented in New Zealand though, where we’re told that the Japanese only conduct scientific research so they can get their hands on the whale meat in a legitimate fashion. There is no evidence of great demand for whale meat, which is the only use for whales products in the modern era,” intones Palmer. “There are large stock piles of whale meat in Japan and Norway yet they want to catch more. In Japan they have started putting whale meat in school lunches in an effort to boost demand.” Carter has his own views on the subject, “Japan is reputedly putting whale meat from scientific whaling into pet food because no one wants to eat it. They have something like 5000 tonnes of whale meat in warehouses they can’t get rid of.” Michael, our man in Japan says, “that’s crap. It’s a delicacy, people enjoy it, and I’ve been told it’s delicious. They might put the cut-offs in pet food but they do that with all animals.” Attempts by New Zealand and other pro-whaling countries to present scientific whaling as a exploitation of a loophole do an excellent job of discrediting any scientific merit that the Japanese whaling programmes could actually have, and by discrediting scientific research into whaling numbers, pro-whaling nations perpetuate the status quo without having to resort to their last chance moral arguments. Recent debates did end up playing the morality card though, but not in the manner you might expect. Following the 2006 IWC meeting, New Zealand accused Japan of unethically using foreign aid to sway the votes of other nations. “Aid has been an important ingredient of the policy of Japan in particular, in its campaign to start commercial whaling again,” explains Palmer, though he denies that New Zealand has ever made aid contingent on anti-whaling policies. Petursson challenges this, asserting that “it works both ways. I think politicians in New Zealand are threatening some Pacific Island nations with cutting off their aid if they continue to support whaling.”
As Childerhouse phrases it, “there are some philosophical differences between many of the whaling countries and nonwhaling countries,” and unfortunately these differences are as often played out as allegations, underhand assertions and appeals to faulty science. If both sides continue to make dubious claims then all they’re doing is making a joke of the IWC, and moving the debate away from any sense of compromise. The IWC exists to regulate whaling and the continued attempts by New Zealand and other antiwhaling nations to hi-jack and transform it into an official obstacle to whaling is a perverse undermining of a legitimate and respected international entity. If Antiwhalers insist on refusing to co-operate or compromise with the opposition, they risk undermining their own stance and their own arguments, and after we’ve fought for so long for a truce with those vicious scourges of the deep, that could perhaps prove to be the unkindest harpoon of them all.