Last week, as people across the globe celebrated Earth Day, Japan, Iceland, and Norway made a quiet bid to legalize commercial whaling. The three countries have long skirted an International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling by invoking various loopholes. As a more permanent solution, they have proposed a "peace plan" that would replace the moratorium with "sustainable catch limits that are substantially below present levels." The new limits, however, would legalize commercial whaling only for Japan, Iceland, and Norway -- all other nations would remain subject to the moratorium.
The IWC is an 88-member body established in 1946 under the terms of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Whales were initially valued as a source of oil and meat. In the 1970s and early '80s, once most countries had long since replaced whale oil with electricity and had lost their taste for whale meat, a global anti-whaling movement gained steam. The IWC passed an official moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, banning all hunting except for scientific study and certain indigenous groups. The moratorium was intended to let whale populations recover (some estimates say exploitation may have reduced numbers by 90 percent or more from original levels). But Monica Medina, U.S. Commissioner to the IWC, estimates that, thanks to scientific and indigenous loopholes, 35,000 whales have been hunted and killed since the moratorium was instated.
So why are Japan, Iceland, and Norway so invested in their whale trades? For Japan, at least, part of the answer is that its proximity to whale populations has integrated whale meat into its cuisine and whale hunting into its culture. Japan also conducts scientific research on whale populations. Japanese scientists insist that collecting some whale data, specifically regarding age and diet, necessitates killing whales. This assertion is challenged both by researchers who prefer non-lethal methods and activists who point out that the research is largely funded by selling the specimens' meat at Japanese fish markets.
"Whaling and whale cuisine are part of Japanese culture, but the purpose of the research program is science," Dan Goodman, councilor to Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, told the BBC in 2008. The purpose of the science, however, is to prove that some whale populations are robust enough to support small-scale commercial hunting.
The Japanese government's support for whaling, a marginal issue domestically, has harpooned the nation's global image. Allegations of vote-buying (Japan sponsors the IWC membership of such landlocked developing countries as Mali, Mongolia, and Laos) and the really bad press created by anti-whaling organizations like Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace have further marred the country's reputation. This year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary, The Cove, demonized Japan for the slaughter of dolphins, whales' cetacean cousins. A day after winning the award, the filmmakers pulled a sting operation at a popular Southern California sushi restaurant, exposing its use of endangered Sei whale meat and eventually forcing it to shut down.
IWC officials see such controversies as a reason to tread lightly in bringing Japan, Iceland, and Norway under its purview. "This proposal represents an historic step, a paradigm shift in how the Commission would operate," said IWC Vice-Chair Anthony Liverpool. "Rather than the mistrust and confrontation that have led to little progress, we now have the opportunity to reconcile our differences, and so strengthen actions related to our shared goal of maintaining healthy whale populations and recovering depleted stocks."
Scientists are now working to determine the limited quotas for Japan, Iceland, and Norway. According to Nature, "there is still considerable uncertainty in both the estimation of existing whale populations and what constitutes a safe or sustainable target." Two parameters are needed to determine a quota: current population numbers and knowledge of past and present catches. According to Doug Butterworth, a member of the IWC scientific committee, population estimates usually have uncertainties of at least 20 percent. Thus the committee uses conservative numbers in its recommendations, prescribing annual catch limits lower than 1 percent of current population sizes.
Preventing the depletion and endangerment of species is a compelling goal, but even aside from biodiversity, whales serve important ecological functions. Their huge bodies store a great deal of carbon: scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute calculated that a century of whaling may have released more than 100 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, an amount equivalent to the carbon stored in a large forest. In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Andrew Pershing described whales as the "forests of the ocean." Whales may also be vital in the fight against ocean acidification, a problem intensifying due to carbon emissions. Whale excrement is especially rich in iron, fertilizing ocean photosynthesizers and continuing the cycle of nutrients in the marine ecosystem.
Even in economic terms, whaling may not be worth it. No matter how tasty their meat, the animals may be more economically valuable when allowed to live. The International Fund for Animal Welfare reported in 2009 that whale watching has grown dramatically: "more than 13 million people took whale watching tours last year in 119 countries worldwide, generating ticket fees and tourism expenditures of more than US$2.1 billion during 2008."