Are Whales Worth More Dead Than Alive?

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Our growing population, the decreasing natural stocks of fish, traditional values, public demand and economic trade, are given as reasons to justify whaling.  Slow, complicated politics with loopholes that can be exploited mean whaling is on the increase.  And it’s getting more difficult to argue against it.

After Blue whales were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1930s, whalers sequentially turned their attention to Fin whales, Sei whales and Minke whales over the next 50 years as populations began to plummet one by one. Minke whales, together with Fin whales, still constitute the majority of cetaceans caught by Japanese research vessels in Antarctic waters with up to 1195 individuals caught each year in the name of science.

A single objection, an exploited loophole and a lack of political progress have led to three countries, Norway, Japan and Iceland, being able to commercially whale and trade in whale meat.  The International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986, but Norway objected, Japan is killing hundreds of whales every year for scientific research, and Iceland began hunting again in 2002.  The IWC is not a conservation body, it is a fisheries management committee where a vote for whaling weighs more heavily than a vote against it.  The IWC have found that it is a long process trying to bring very different opinions about commercial whaling together and has been at an ‘impasse’ on its management schemes since 2005.

A third of Japanese whale meat comes from coastal communities which is justified because it is traditional practice.  The Makah tribe in the US are also allowed to hunt whales because it is traditional and is a matter of value and pride for them, but if that is reason enough for them, Japanese coastal communities are also justified.  Inuit use whaling to feed their tribe but unlike the Makah and Japanese coastal communities, in an impoverished environment they have little other choice.

Community whalers in Japan traditionally hunt smaller species such as dolphin and porpoise which accumulate poisons from industrial coastal areas.  A study by scientists from England and Japan tested 61 whale meat products.  They used DNA analysis to find out if the species was what it said it was and tested the levels of contaminants.  Their results, published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health showed labelling errors and dangerously high levels of poisons which cause learning difficulties.

Figure 2.  Japan’s coastal communities killed 15,720 Dalls porpoise for human food in 2003.  These top predators have been recorded with dangerously high levels of toxins such as PCB and mercury.

Scientific research has an accepted sample size of around 30 individuals for sound results yet 935 Minke whales were set to be killed by lethal sampling by the Japanese Whale Research Programme in Antarctica (JARPA) this year.  In 16 years only one paper has been published by JARPA in an international journal, and they have never allowed anyone else to analyse their raw data.  If it is not for scientific research, you would assume there is a food demand for it in Japan.  According to Aiko Endo and Masahiro Yamao of Hiroshima University’s article in March 2007, published in the journal of Marine Policy, demand is low as it remains too expensive for the general public, and of inconsistent quality.  By killing more whales they can sell it cheaper and subsidise it for schools so children become used to eating it.

Until Japan can recognise the dangers in mislabelling of potentially poisonous whale meat it can never be a safe form of food for the public. Yet in an overcrowded island large amounts of meat from the uncontaminated baleen whales of Antarctica may be an obvious food product to the Japanese government.  Provided strict labelling laws are implemented, they are a good source of healthy protein that would last for many generations to come. In this way it may be that some whales are worth more dead than alive, although this somewhat negates the potential economic benefits of whale-watching;  an industry measured in billions rather than millions.

Even with the sustainable catch quotas, the IWC would find them impossible to enforce, the effects of which would only be seen when it is too late.  Corrupt politics, ineffective management, the global nature of whales, the health of the oceanic food chain and the danger to human health mean that whales can only be sustainably economically exploited for ecotourism.  For desperate Japan the fight for dead whales is their solution for hunger in the future, but for whales to continue to produce economic gain globally, they need to live.

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