Notes & Comment May 1999

Flouting the Convention

The ongoing campaign to ban all commercial whaling is driven by politics rather than science, and is setting a terrible precedent

Such an approach, based on moral judgments rather than science, plainly violates both the convention and the international rule of law. And because anti-whaling activists will accept nothing less than a total ban, they leave no room for good-faith negotiation and compromise. The whaling industry will not cooperate in its own elimination, nor will the governments of whaling nations permit their citizens to be victimized. As a result, scientists, whalers, and activists are locked in a never-ending battle. The bitter standoff violates international law, fosters tensions between otherwise friendly nations, and undermines environmental legislation. Worst of all, the cynical actions of the IWC's anti-whaling majority constitute a clear warning to all nations engaged in negotiating multilateral environmental agreements: Beware, for the United States and its allies may suddenly adopt new interpretations of long-standing principles, and use them against you. Even if you accept treaties, these countries may (for purely domestic reasons) apply sanctions against you for actions fully in compliance with those treaties.

Despite guidelines accompanying the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that refer to only twelve whale species (right, pigmy right, bowhead, humpback, blue, fin, Bryde's, minke, sei, sperm, and Arctic and Antarctic bottlenose), many IWC members act as if the convention covered all whales—and even all cetaceans, the order of eighty-three species of aquatic mammals that also includes dolphins and porpoises. Few scientists deny that several species of whale—including the blue, the right, the bowhead, and the humpback—have been severely overhunted by commercial whalers and are now properly regarded as endangered. But almost all scientists admit that most other species are in no danger of extinction. Minke and pilot whales, for example, have populations of more than a million, and sperm whales have a population of about a million. Gray whales (probably more abundant now than ever) and some regional stocks of sei, Bryde's, and fin whales (less abundant than in earlier times, but not dramatically so) are in no sense endangered by controlled hunts.

Unsurprisingly, researchers continue to argue that endangered species should generally not be hunted. However, the IWC allows native peoples in Alaska and Siberia to hunt limited numbers of bowhead along with gray whales to meet their needs. Neither species has been adversely affected by such hunting. Estimates of the bowhead population in the late 1970s ranged from 500 to 2,000 animals; the current bowhead population is believed to exceed 8,000. The rise in the estimate is due in part to population growth but mostly to better survey techniques. It is estimated that the gray-whale population has increased from about 7,000 animals in the 1930s to more than 26,000 today, despite authorized subsistence catches of 140 or more a year. The difference is thought to reflect population growth.

Just because it is possible to harvest whales without placing their populations in jeopardy does not mean that the practice is acceptable. Whale protectionists often claim that whales are extremely intelligent—as smart as, if not smarter than, humankind—and that the killing of such highly sentient creatures is wrong. But whales have been studied intensively for decades, and there is still no strong evidence that they are uniquely intelligent. Many species throughout the animal kingdom demonstrate behaviors and abilities just as complex as those demonstrated by whales.

Another major objection to whaling is that it is an inhumane practice carried out unnecessarily. Let us be clear: "humane killing"is an oxymoron. The best we can hope for in killing animals is that death be as quick and as nearly painless as possible. Experience has shown that in the whaling industry this is largely achieved—just as it is in the food industries that kill millions of cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens every day.

Some whaling-ban advocates feel that whaling has no place in the contemporary world. They point to the fact that many industrialized countries, despite having engaged in commercial whaling twenty or thirty years ago, are now fervent opponents of whaling. If this is the case, the advocates ask, why should Norway and Japan and a few other countries continue whaling? The trouble is that this argument assumes that there are no fundamental cultural differences between whaling and nonwhaling societies: the former are simply considered to be stuck at an earlier stage of development, in need of being goosed up the ladder of progress.

Anthropologists believe otherwise. The societies that have abandoned whaling hunted whales principally for oil. Until the late 1960s whale oil was used for many purposes—in submarine guidance systems, for example, leading the Pentagon to object to listing sperm whales as an endangered species. Indeed, the IWC was established in part to ensure the profitability of the whale-oil business, which it did by setting quotas measured in units of oil. When substitutes for whale oil became available in the 1970s, nations that whaled primarily for oil stopped hunting whales.

Things were different in other nations, especially Norway and Japan, where whaling is an ancient occupation worthy of the respect and support that Americans award to, say, the running of a farm. Norwegians view whaling as part of the hard, honorable life of a fisherman—a reliable slow-season activity that helps fishing communities to make it through the year. The Japanese who come from a long line of whalers have deeply held moral beliefs about maintaining their family tradition. To be prevented from honoring their ancestors in this manner is a source of shame. After the 1982 moratorium some Norwegian fishers went bankrupt. The same thing happened in Iceland. Given the abundance of the whale stocks, these nations ask, why can't such people be free to practice their traditional livelihood? Anthropologists have long observed the primary role played by traditional foods in the social structure and moral norms of a community—a role that is captured in the widely repeated aphorism "you are what you eat." Asking people to give up their customary diet is in many ways like asking them to give up part of their identity.

Presented by

William Aron, William Burke, and Milton Freeman

William Aron is an affiliate professor at the University of Washington and has recently retired as the director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. William Burke is a professor of law and of marine affairs at the University of Washington. Milton Freeman is the Henry Marshall Tory Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta.

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