Sidney Holt: It's a Mad, Mad, Whaling World

24 August 2011
Studying history can make you weep but occasionally despair is temporarily seasoned by merriment. “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” wrote Karl Marx. How true!
The Icelandic delegation to the IWC has behaved pretty obnoxiously, sometimes outright aggressively, since the country re-joined the IWC in October 2002 with a fake ‘objection’ (reservation) to the commercial whaling moratorium, courtesy of the Swedish Chairman’s casting vote. But it didn’t start there.
Let’s begin with Nice Land, Iceland. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, ‘modern whaling’, Norwegian style, was a controversial subject among the population of Iceland, but eventually in 1935, the Danish colonial Government licensed a whaling station and also decided that only Icelandic nationals could participate in whaling in the nation’s territorial waters. The company running that station went out of business in 1939. Post-war, a new company was formed, Hvalur H/F, owner and General Manager now Mr. Kristján Loftsson. His family company converted an old US Navy base into a whaling station. Norwegians trained the Icelanders until the early 1950s.
We are all familiar these days with the revolving door between governments and corporations and the enhanced and practically universal use of that facility in Japanese business and government. Between Mr. Loftsson’s operations and the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, it appears to be more like an open archway.
Iceland signed the 1946 ICRW in March 1947, coming into effect in November 1948. A delegation attended the first and second IWC meetings, but (I suppose) because the rest of the members were wholly occupied with the real business of pelagic baleen whaling in the Antarctic, Iceland only occasionally sent delegations to the following meetings. Let sleeping dogs lie, they say.
Iceland was absent from the third meeting in Cape Town in 1951 – the first one attended by Japan - and was notable as one of the few countries that had not informed the Secretary, as requested, about its rules and administrative arrangements for the regulation of its whaling activities. Then, in one of Iceland’s absences, in Tokyo, 1954, the IWC banned the catching of blue whales in the North Pacific and North Atlantic, initially for five years. Iceland, supported by its old mother-country, objected to this in absentia. Canada, Japan, USA and USSR objected to the North Pacific ban. This possibly reflected not so much an intention to continue killing blue whales – as was Iceland’s – but the first indication that these four countries intended henceforth to ‘regulate’ whaling in that area among themselves, even if nominally within the IWC. Iceland and Denmark ultimately withdrew their objections to the blue whale ban in 1959, by the time of the IWC’s 11th meeting, held in London, which the lawyer-historian Professor Patricia Birnie wrote of as crucial because three of the five Antarctic pelagic whalers – Norway, Netherlands and Japan - had threatened to walk out of the IWC. That year the bans on killing blue whales in the Northern Hemisphere were extended for a further five years. In the decade 1948-1958, Hvalur’s brave men killed 163 blue whales at an average rate of 14 each year. They also killed 3000 fin whales (241/yr.), 550 sei whales, 11 ‘protected’ humpbacks and 600 sperm whales.
Having finished off the blue whales, by 1975 Hvalur catchers went on to kill, entirely unregulated, another 4000 fin whales (243/yr. – what a coincidence!), topped up to 74 sei per year, and exactly doubled the average annual sperm whale catches to 99. In 1976, the New Management Procedure came into effect, supposedly setting zero or sustainable catch rates everywhere for each species. Loftsson, the Icelandic Government and its tame scientists had taken great care not to make available to the IWC the essential detailed data for whaling on which all NMP assessments depended. Thus, there was no hard evidence that the stocks of whales accessible to Iceland had been affected by whaling. All the IWC could then do was allocate ‘catch limits’ at about the average of previous catches – with a so-called ‘safety factor’ for the fin whale – giving Mr. Loftsson an average catch of 207 fin whales, 74 sei and 98 sperm whales until the commercial moratorium came into effect in 1986. In ‘86, they caught about the same number of sei whales as they had been doing before the moratorium but generously halved the fin whale catch, all as ‘scientific specimens’.
The Icelandic scientists advising the Government, and through it the IWC, kept saying the blue whales were increasing. In the Netherlands’ pelagic whaling years the Dutch scientific adviser kept saying the fin whales in the Antarctic were increasing. And Japanese scientists insisted that minke whales were increasing in the Antarctic until, last year, the IWC’s Scientific Committee agreed that there appeared to be fewer of them around to be counted in the third six-year circumpolar sightings survey than there had been during the second one. The repeated refusal of the Scientific Committee as a whole to accept this stuff is a very good reason for insisting that if there is to be any whaling, its regulation must be based on genuine international assessments - despite their possible weaknesses - adopted by consensus. The last time there was a serious effort to avoid that imperative was in the assembly by the Commissioners for the US and New Zealand – with the connivance of the then Chilean Chairman – of the infamous deal by which all the whaling nations would be awarded commercial catch limits for five or ten years by retaining the moratorium but circumventing it with weasel words.
The assertion that an exploitable wild population is increasing is, for the potential beneficiaries, a signal that it is time to resume its exploitation. This is as true for fisheries and seals as it is for whales. The idea is that if simplistic calculations – few of which deserve to be called ‘scientific’ – indicate that the resumed catches will be no more – in modern ‘precautionary’ times a bit less – than the population can reproduce then they will be ‘sustainable’, therefore OK. But good management is about taking adequate catches, long-term, from large restored populations. Sorry, I’m beginning to repeat myself. The fact is that the concepts of biological sustainability and even the search for optima were once then reasonably clear, at least to practitioners and even to well-read lay persons. Then Mme Gro Harlem Brudtland came along with her quasi-oxymoronic ‘sustainable development’, and now sustainability has lost all meaning in the general public domain. I’ve recently heard statements about ‘sustainable car production’, sustainable mining, and sustainable policies (that’ll be the day, when we can keep ‘harvesting’ policies and there will always be just as many new ones coming along). After two beautiful racehorses died recently during Britain’s dreadful Grand National, I read about the coming of sustainable steeple-chasing. Oh my!
The Story of Madness will be continued.
Sidney Holt
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