A: There are certain groups of people who do, in fact, rely on whales for local nutritional subsistence such as the people of Lamalera
(Indonesia) or certain Inuit communities in remote parts of the Arctic.
However, whale meat is not necessary for food security in any of the nations that kill whales on an industrial scale (Iceland, Norway and Japan). Only a tiny fraction of the populations of these developed nations consumes whale on a regular basis. Much of the meat is stockpiled in cold storage or ground up into fertilizer and animal feed. The rest is sold as a luxury item in markets and restaurants.
Q: Don't whalers need to work?
A: In Iceland, Norway, and Japan whaling does not make up a significant part of the national economy. In fact, the whaling industries of these nations are
propped up with government support including subsidies.
While it is arguable that a number of small communities do depend on income from whaling, the undeniable reality is the demand for whale meat continues to decline while the business of whale tourism continues to grow. The whales are worth more alive than dead. Investment in the lucrative whale watching industry is an investment in the future success of men and whales.
Q: What makes whales any different than cows?
A: The most common comparisons between farm livestock and whales are also the most flawed. Whales are wild animals and are not raised under controlled conditions for the human food supply. With many growing threats and slow reproductive rates, there is no guarantee that any species of whale will survive from one year to the next.
There is also no quality control or safety oversight for whales as opposed to livestock. Toxic chemicals and metals such as mercury, chromium, PCBs and more accumulate in the body tissues of whales making some species extremely unsafe for human consumption. Unlike cattle, there is no way to observe whales for diseases (like a cetacean variant of mad cow disease) that could harm human beings.
Q: How is whaling inhumane?
A: The methods for killing whales cause a great deal of suffering prior to death. A large cannon fired harpoon tipped with an explosive penthrite grenade is most often used by industrial whaling fleets. In many cases there is not an "instant kill" including strikes that do not result in a catch.
Whales have been filmed struggling with gaping wounds from these harpoons from 15 minutes to an hour despite efforts by whalers to finish the animals off with high powered rifles. In some cases a second harpoon is utilized. In others, the whale is dragged backwards by its tail until it drowns.
In documented drive hunts, entire pods of dolphins or pilot whales are corralled in shallow water and then collectively stabbed to death by hand. Some of the animals are left to bleed out after being hauled ashore or drown in a mixture of their own blood and sea water.
Q: Is whaling illegal?
A: The legality of whaling is unfortunately a gray area of international law. The International Whaling Commission established a global moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986 which remains in effect to this day. CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) also forbids the international trade of whale products. The IWC has established whale sanctuaries where the killing of whales is not permitted such as the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary which covers all Antarctic waters. The Antarctic Treaty System does not permit the dumping of industrial waste such as the byproducts (unwanted material such as intestines) of whaling.
Several independent international legal panels have found that Japan's whaling specifically violates international treaties. The Australian Federal Court has ruled that Japan's whaling in the Australian Antarctic Territory is illegal. The European Union has outlawed whaling and is demanding Iceland cease whaling before joining the EU. Australia has filed suit against Japanese whaling in the International Court of Justice. The IWC has repeatedly issued resolutions calling on whaling nations to stop killing whales and adhere to the moratorium.
However, due to the non-binding nature of international agreements, the industrial whaling nations have simply "opted out" of established regulations and continued to kill whales, including endangered species, and trade in whale products. Until a definitive ruling on the matter is issued by an entity such as the ICJ, whaling nations will continue to assert that their actions are legal. Japan will continue to abuse the "science loophole" (Article VIII) in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and claim it is harvesting whales for research rather than commercial purposes. Iceland and Norway will continue to claim official "objections" to the commercial whaling moratorium. All will hold "reservations" to CITES for the species of whales they wish to hunt.
The IWC only permits aboriginal subsistence whaling for the nutritional and local use of native communities that demonstrate a need for hunting whales. Unfortunately, this too is abused, particularly by Greenland, for commercial purposes.
All commercial whaling outside of the IWC is considered "pirate whaling". However, there is also no legal definition for this term. In the 1970s and 80s, Japan's Taiyo fisheries facilitated "pirate whaling" through front companies all over the world that killed whales in secret regardless of quotas, species restrictions, and other regulations to smuggle the unreported meat back to Japan. When the illicit business was exposed by independent investigation Japan denied any involvement.
Q: Shouldn't whales be culled to protect fish stocks for people?
A: In efforts to persuade developing nations and uninformed individuals to support whaling, Japan has spread a great deal of propaganda regarding whales. It was suggested that whales were devouring so many fish that the fisheries of nations would be depleted and ruined by the giant mammals.
However, scientists have long studied the eating habits of whales in addition to the health of important fisheries. The truth is that the largest of whales, mischaracterized by Japan, do not consume the large fish that people depend on. In fact, the largest creatures on the earth consume some of the smallest in places far away from important coastal fisheries. Baleen whales, like the Blue whale, dine almost entirely on tiny crustaceans like krill and small fish in polar seas.
In fact, human overfishing is responsible for decimating most stocks of fish around the world and without drastic reductions in annual catches will result in a global crisis according to UN estimates.
Q: Are whales more intelligent than other animals?
A: According to a growing body of research, dolphins and whales are among the smartest creatures on the planet. Studies have revealed that cetaceans may possess high level cognitive abilities ranking them second in intelligence between human beings and chimpanzees. Some scientists have even suggested that cetaceans should have special rights as non-human persons.
Cetaceans are self-aware. Many species have displayed complex social behavior including matriarchal family structure, learned behavior passed from one generation to the next, unique regional communication like dialects and even tool use. They have some of the largest and most complex brains found in the animal kingdom.
Q: How are whales important to the environment?
A: Whales contribute to the health of ocean ecosystems in important ways. In any ecosystem, all creatures are inherently connected and interdependent with other animals in the food web.
The great whales help to fertilize the oceans by distributing iron in their excrement, which is important to algae and phytoplankton growth. When a large whale dies it becomes a bounty to all of the scavengers of the ocean from sea birds and sharks to hag fish, worms and bacteria. Recent observations revealed that a single whale carcass at the ocean floor will support an abundance of scavenger species for over a year.
Toothed whales keep other species in check with Orcas (killer whales) dominating the food web as a top predator and consuming everything from squid and fish to seals and other cetaceans.
Q: Is whaling a cultural tradition?
A: History shows that whaling has been carried out by many peoples from ancient to modern times. Excepting the native communities permitted to hunt whales for nutritional subsistence, today whaling exists only as an industry for the profit of a select few.
Iceland's whaling past is entirely dominated by foreign companies depleting whale stocks for oil profits prior to the 1950s. Japan's traditional whalers were put out of business when Norwegian modern whaling techniques were adopted at the start of the 20th century.
The fact is industrial whaling is no more an important cultural tradition than building skyscrapers, burning coal or bottling water. The whales are slaughtered, packaged, marketed and sold like any other mass produced item in a modern economy. A more important question is whether or not any "tradition" somehow justifies the extinction of species as industrial whaling nearly wiped out every large species of whales.
Q: Is "Save the Whales" a hopeless cause?
A: In 1975, Andrew M. Behr (owner of the infamous pirate whaling vessel, the Sierra) stated that everybody knew, "Whales are finished anyway."
The history of the whaling industry is filled with egregious regulatory violations. Despite the national laws of many nations and the international agreements protecting cetaceans large and small, there are those who see whales as nothing more than a resource to be exploited until depleted of profitable business opportunity.
Regardless of Behr's personal lack of respect for conservation and international regulations, progress has been made in pulling many species of whales back from the brink of extinction. There is an ongoing political and moral battle for the preservation of cetaceans. There is still a chance to save the whales.
IWPO uses some copyrighted visual content under legal provisions for 'fair use'.
The International Whale Protection Organization is a non-profit association against the exploitation of whales and dolphins.