The big news of the day in the topic of whales and whaling is the news that Japan has stated its intention to resume commercial whaling in July 2019. This will coincide with them stepping down as a member nation of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). None of the current members of the IWC do whaling on a commercial basis. So, Japan will join Iceland and Norway as commercial whaling nations in defiance of the voluntary moratorium that was voted on in 1983 and commenced with the 1986 whaling season.
Japan has been conducting Special Permit (Scientific) whaling, via Article VIII of the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, since 1987. They are the only country to do so since 2008. Countries that wish to do this type of whaling apply to their own governments, not the IWC, for their scientific permits. Because the Japanese government subsidizes this whaling, these permits were always going to be approved. One of the requirements of this article in the ICRW, is that the animal cannot simply be discarded. So, the meat of the animal is then available for distribution and consumption.
At no point did Japan publish any peer-reviewed scientific papers as a result of the data they collected. So, in reality, this change of status from scientific to commercial removes any pretense as to the purpose of their whale hunting. What will be different is that they will now remain in their own territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone, rather than hunt in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, where commercial whaling is banned.
Japan, Iceland and Norway all maintain that sustainable whaling is possible for select species. Members of the IWC disagree. They signed a non-binding resolution at the 2018 annual symposium, in Brazil, stating that whaling was no longer economically viable or necessary for scientific research.
Commercial whaling ended in the United States in 1972 when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed. Commercial whaling in New Bedford had ended in 1925 when the two-masted schooner, John R. Manta, returned to port after a three-and-a-half-month voyage to the Hatteras Grounds. The year before, in a much better known story, the Wanderer, a three-masted bark, broke up in a storm on Sow and Pigs Reef off of Cuttyhunk Island, and thus she and her crew did not go a-whaling.
Because this story is such big news, you have no shortage of media outlets you can access to get more details. I encourage you to view more than one. Some stories have some footage that come with a warning before you watch it.
Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Illustration by Uko Gorter.
This morning we posted a Guardian (UK) story on our Facebook page about Iceland’s lone whaling company combining oil extracted from endangered fin whales with marine oil to power their fleet. Another publication, Wildlife Extra News has picked up on this story as well.
Hvalur is the only whaling company in Iceland. Their CEO, Kristjan Loftsson, is a veteran of the whaling industry, having started as an observer on his father’s whale ships in 1956. In a June 2010 story, published by Google News and AFP (and posted on our Bulletin Board that month), he made his attitude towards whales quite clear while in attendance at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Morocco. “Whales are just another fish for me, an abundant marine resource, nothing else…If they are so intelligent why don’t they stay outside of Iceland’s territorial waters?”
Iceland has increased their quota this year for fin whales, the second largest species of whale and historically the most hunted of the great whales. In compiling the data from the IWC database, and recent reports by researcher Yulia Ivashchenko of corrected Soviet whaling harvest totals, I estimate that approximately 900,000 fin whales were killed globally via factory whaling methods between 1900-2000. Unlike Japan, which does its harvesting under the heading of Scientific Whaling, Iceland makes no such claims. Their hunt is strictly commercial, with their sales going mainly to Japan and to tourists who visit Iceland. Iceland and Norway both hunt commercially in defiance of the voluntary moratorium agreed to by IWC members in 1983 and enacted in full in 1986.
Mr. Loftsson’s claim that this new fuel mix should be considered a green biofuel is ludicrous. Utilizing an endangered species to cut down on use of fossil fuels to then hunt more of that same species serves no benefit to the marine environment. Chris Butler-Stroud, the Executive Director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), summarized the duplicitous nature of this strategy, “This is a completely absurd, perverse and unethical move by an industry that is already steeped in the blood of whales, and which is now prepared to use the remains of dead whales to keep its own vessels afloat.”
Bowhead Scrimshaw Carving. From Whaling Museum Kendall Collection
One of the benefits of having shared a U.S. Department of Education grant with the Inupiat of Alaska’s North Slope, was the exchange of cultural knowledge and practices. Speaking only for myself, I learned a great deal about life in Barrow, both from working on projects together and by visiting the town. One thing became quite clear. It really is necessary to hunt for your protein.
If you want meat, you need to get it yourself, or hope that someone in your family will do the harvesting. This includes wide assortment of food that comes from catching what my host in Barrow called ‘the mighty bowhead’. They eat the skin, blubber, muscle, kidney, heart, intestines and tongue. The hunt provides nourishment and continues a centuries long tradition. There may be modern technology used, but the result is the same – a bounty of food celebrated by the whole town, and shared by the captain of the crew who caught the whale.
The whalers along the North Slope have often had to wage political battles within the International Whaling Commission to maintain their subsistence whaling quota, a quota that lasts for a five year span. That battle may have to take place again in July, during the IWC meeting in Panama. As a backup plan, Alaska’s congressional delegation has introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would enable the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to set the subsistence quota, if IWC members do not. The two previous votes on this topic, in 2002 and 2007, required some political maneuvering to get the majority vote in favor of the hunt. This is a wise use of the stipulation written into the 1946 International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, which allows for such a move if the IWC doesn’t set the quota.
If you’re curious as to why they don’t just go to the store to buy their meat, check out this article about the cost of food in Barrow.