A Nasty Business – Why Commercial Whaling Must End


Campaign Whale – TRANSCEND Media Service


Since the indefinite commercial whaling moratorium was introduced in 1986, the whaling nations have killed around 15,000 whales between them. At the time of writing, the Japanese whaling fleet has just returned from Antarctic waters where a further 300 or so minke whales have been killed for so called ‘research’, in open defiance of world public opinion and the IWC which has never validated the Japanese programme. The meat from those dead whales will end up on sale in Japanese restaurants and on supermarket shelves. Japan is not only defying the global moratorium on commercial whaling, it is killing whales in a sanctuary agreed by the IWC in 1994.

Japan has ‘recruited’ many countries to the IWC to support the resumption of commercial whaling using foreign aid packages. If the ban is lost it will be a disaster for whale conservation efforts.

This report presents the many reasons why the ban on commercial whaling must be maintained and properly enforced. We cannot wipe away the tragic history of commercial whaling, but we can, and must, prevent its repetition.

The Natural History of Whales

Whales belong to the order of mammals known as Cetacea. There are about 80 species of cetaceans, including all the dolphins and porpoises, as well as the ten so-called ‘great’ whale species, which have borne the brunt of commercial whaling.

Cetaceans are believed to have evolved from land mammals, which adapted to an aquatic existence about 50 million years ago. They are superbly adapted to life in the deep oceans. They can dive to and rise from great depths without having to decompress like human divers, and can remain submerged for long periods (well over an hour in some cases). A thick layer of blubber serves them both for insulation and buoyancy. Nostrils or “blowholes” on the top of their heads enable whales to breathe while swimming with maximum efficiency.

The order Cetacea is divided into two sub-orders, the mysticeti or baleen species, and the odontoceti, the toothed whales. With the exception of the sperm whale, all the “great” whales belong to the mysticeti. Instead of teeth, mysticeti whales have long, fibrous plates of keratin called baleen, extending from the upper jaw, which act as sieves when feeding. These whales swim through large concentrations of plankton, crustaceans or small fish opening their mouths and taking huge gulps of water. The tongue pushes water out of the mouth through the baleen and the food is left to be swallowed.

Baleen, which was erroneously called ‘whalebone’, was widely used in the 19th century for making corsets, stiffeners for petticoats, even tennis racquets – anything that required a combination of elasticity and strength. Earlier this century the industry’s great interest in baleen whales was in the edible oil that could be rendered from their blubber, as a basis for margarine. Since the 1960”s the primary commodity has been whale meat.

The baleen species include the right, bowhead and grey whales, and the six rorquals (a Norwegian word meaning ‘grooved’ whales, referring to the throat pleats in these species): the blue, fin, sei,) Bryde’s, humpback and minke whales. The blue whale is the largest animal ever to have lived. It can reach 30 metres in length and weigh 130 tons. The minke, by comparison, a mere 8 metres and up to 8 tons in weight.

The largest of the toothed whales is the 18 metre, forty-ton sperm whale, Melville’s Moby Dick, which has the largest brain ever evolved in the animal kingdom. Sperm whales”, like other toothed whales”, principle prey is fish and squid. Other toothed species include the Orca or “killer” whale (which will feed on seals and even other whales), the bottlenose and beaked whales, the pilot whales, beluga, narwhal, dolphins and porpoises.

The oceans are a noisy environment to which whales contribute. Baleen species use sound for communication while the toothed whales also use it as a kind of sonar, called echolocation. It has even been suggested that the sperm whale can use sound as a weapon, directing concentrated blasts to stun and capture its prey. Scientists cannot agree how intelligent whales are or whether they possess language as we understand it. However, many species display complex and cooperative behaviour and produce a wide variety of sounds to communicate with each other.

Particularly well known among the great whales are the ‘songs’ of courting male humpback whales. These “songs”, the longest and most complex in the animal kingdom, have captivated and intrigued scientists and public alike. Not only have they been recorded onto a best-selling album, they are also aboard the ‘Voyager’ spacecraft, a message from planet Earth on its way out of the Solar System.

The History of Whaling

The history of commercial whaling is one of greed, cruelty and ignorance, the systematic destruction of one whale population after, some being pushed to the brink of extinction.

The first large-scale commercial whaling operation was conducted by the Basques of France and Spain, who hunted right whales in the Bay of Biscay from the twelfth century onwards. Right whales were easy prey, they were large, swam slowly and close to the coast, contained large amounts of oil and most obligingly floated when dead. For these reasons, they were the “right” whales to hunt. By the sixteenth century, too few right whales were left to sustain the industry and today there are no right whales to be found in the Bay of Biscay.

The appalling overkill established at the beginning of the whaling industry was to repeat itself many times over the succeeding centuries. From the Bay of Biscay, whaling gradually spread northwards up the European coast. Equipped only with sailing ships, open boats and hand-thrown harpoons, the whalers pursued whales until they became scarce near the coast. They then began whaling voyages deep into the open ocean. By the mid nineteenth century, there were more than 700 whaling vessels afloat, hunting in virtually all the oceans of the world. Up until this time, the fast swimming rorquals such as the blue, fin, sei, Bryde’s, humpback and minke, and those which lived in the more remote and inaccessible areas, had largely escaped hunting.

All of this changed however, with the advent of powerful steam-powered ships, and the invention, by Norwegian Svend Foyn, of the explosive grenade harpoon and a cannon from which it could be fired. Whaling ships could now outpace the fastest whales, and pursue them literally to the ends of the Earth. Having all but wiped out many whale populations in the northern hemisphere, the whaling fleets turned to the southern oceans, and to the feeding grounds of the rorqual whales in the Antarctic.

One by one, species after species went into decline through over-hunting. The final blow came with the arrival, in the 1920s, of the ‘factory’ ships, sea-borne slaughterhouses which could flense (strip the blubber from the carcass) and process the whales far out at sea. These factory ships were fed by catcher boats that would harpoon the unfortunate whales and tow them back for rendering down into oil.

The whalers were no longer tied to land stations for unloading whale carcasses. With factory ships, whalers could now penetrate the Antarctic pack ice, stay at sea for months at a time, and slaughter whales by the thousands each year – and this they did.

The Antarctic Whaling Tragedy

Early this century, the whaling fleets turned to the southern oceans and the feeding grounds of the baleen whales in the Antarctic. With the new technology and an insatiable demand for whale oil, the results were catastrophic. Of around 2 million whales slaughtered this century, more than one million were killed in the Antarctic. Only recently has the full impact of this devastation come to light.

In 1989, the IWC was presented with hard evidence of the devastated Antarctic whale populations. In a six-year sightings survey conducted under the IWC’s International Decade of Cetacean Research programme, only 22 schools of blue whales, 27 schools of fin and 87 schools of humpback whales were seen (average school size 1-2 animals). By computer extrapolation, population estimates were established which showed that two of these species had been depleted by between 95% and 99% of their former abundance. The blue whale, singled out as the largest and therefore most profitable species to hunt, reduced to fewer than 1,000 animals from an original population of a quarter of a million in the southern ocean.

As the blue whale population crashed, the whalers switched their attention to the next largest species, the fin whales. Today, only about 5% of the original fin whale population of nearly half a million animals is thought to be left. Humpbacks too, were also heavily over-hunted. Current best estimates suggest no more than a quarter of the original population of humpback whales remain. Next came the sei whales, which were similarly targeted, decimated and finally abandoned. So the senseless chain of destruction continued.

The sperm whale, Melville’s “Moby Dick”, heavily over-hunted for its highly prized oil by the Yankee whalers in the northern hemisphere during the 19th century, now fell victim to gross over-exploitation in the southern oceans. As one by one the larger species become scarce, so it became the turn of the relatively tiny minke whales to be hunted. Recent estimates suggest perhaps three-quarters of a million minkes remain in Antarctic waters. It is these whales that Japan is most anxious to exploit commercially and has continued to slaughter throughout the commercial whaling ban.

In 1994, the IWC declared the Antarctic a whale sanctuary prohibiting commercial whaling for at least ten years when the decision may be reviewed. Unfortunately, Japan has yet to accept this decision and continues to kill around 300 minke whales each year in the region for ‘research’. Despite the moratorium and despite the sanctuary, whales are still being slaughtered in their hundreds each year.

Attempts to Control Whaling

In 1946, the whaling industry finally recognised at without controls, it was set to wipe out its own “golden goose”. The fourteen nations involved in whaling met in Washington to negotiate an International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). This convention was the basis on which the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed. The IWC’s first meeting was in 1949. The intention behind the ICRW and mandate of the IWC was to manage whaling so that whale stocks would not be over-exploited.

Unfortunately, for the first two decades of its existence, the Commission failed completely in this task because it was dominated by the whaling interests that had formed it. Conservation was always of secondary importance.

This whalers club presided over the greatest period of whale slaughter in history, killing an average of 50-60,000 whales every year. By the early sixties, this reached an all time high of almost 70,000 whales. In this way, one after another, the different species of rorqual were targeted, hunted, and then abandoned as their numbers crashed through over-exploitation.

In 1972, dissatisfaction with the mismanagement of whaling had reached the United Nations. At that year’s UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, a unanimous resolution was passed calling for, among other things, a “strengthening” of the IWC, and an immediate ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling. Two weeks later, a similar moratorium proposal was put to the IWC’s annual meeting in London, but this was defeated. The following year, another moratorium proposal did pass, but not by the necessary three-quarters majority. However, by this time, the IWC could no longer ignore growing public outrage. However, rather than put an end to a highly profitable industry, they compromised. In 1975, a new management plan was introduced by the IWC known as the “New Management Procedure” (NMP).

Under the NMP all whaling quotas were to be established on a stock-by-stock basis, rather than species-by-species, with each stock classified under management categories according to their estimated status. The most depleted would be afforded immediate protection, while the others could be exploited at a level, which would produce a “Maximum Sustainable Yield” (MSY). The MSY is based on the theory that as an animal population is reduced by hunting, there is a compensatory increase in the rate of reproduction, which combined, with a reduction of natural mortality produces a “surplus” of animals that can be harvested.

In the case of whales, the sustainable yield is theoretically maximised if the population of whales is maintained at between 60-80% of its original numbers. If these calculations are correct, one can, in theory, sustain a level of harvest without reducing the population any further. Rather like living off the interest on your savings without touching your capital. The NMP was clearly an improvement over the approach taken in the early days of the IWC’s history. It resulted in much needed protection for a number of depleted whale populations, most notably the fin and sei whales in the Antarctic and North Pacific, and was later to bring protection to stocks of other species.

However, within five years of its adoption serious doubts were being raised within the Scientific Committee of the IWC about the NMP’s overall reliability. In 1979, some members of the IWC’s Scientific Committee argued that only a moratorium could ensure whale stocks were not over-exploited.

By 1982, enough conservation-minded countries had heeded the UN’s call ten years earlier for a “strengthening” of the IWC and joined the Commission. By then, the ranks of the IWC had swollen to 37 nations and for the first time in the Commission’s history, conservation measures began to prevail over greed. The necessary three-quarters majority was attained and a proposal for an indefinite moratorium on commercial whaling finally passed. In order to allow the industry time to wind down, the whalers were given a three-year phase out period with the moratorium scheduled to be fully in place by 1986.

With the moratorium vote, conservationists claimed victory. But the whaling industry refused to concede defeat. Long practiced in avoiding or ignoring IWC decisions, the whaling nations have continued the slaughter. Even now, a new management plan for renewed commercial whaling is being finalized by the IWC. It could mean a lifting of the ban on commercial whaling in the very near future.

The Revised Management Procedure

At the 1991 IWC meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, the principle of a Revised Management Procedure (RMP) was adopted to replace the New Management Procedure (NMP). The NMP was introduced by the IWC to replace the Blue Whale Unit (BWU) in 1975. It was an attempt to slow and ultimately reverse the decline in whale stocks caused by over-hunting. Under the BWU, quotas were set based only on the relative oil yield of the different species. The BWU was worth one blue whale, 2 fin, 6 sei or 2.5 humpbacks.

The largest and most profitable species became the mainstay of the industry. For example, in Antarctica the blue whale was slaughtered by the tens of thousands each year, peaking at over 30,000 animals in a single season in the 1930”s. The blue whale population never recovered from this onslaught. Today, the blue whale remains critically endangered with less than 1% of its original numbers remaining despite nearly 30 years total protection from hunting.
Unfortunately, the NMP had failed to arrest the decline of whale populations, and this was a significant factor in the decision to impose the current moratorium on commercial whaling.

The principles behind the RMP are that commercial whaling should not be permitted on whale stocks that are severely depleted and that depleted stocks should be allowed to recover as rapidly as possible. However, the RMP model that was adopted by the IWC would allow exploitation of whale stocks below the existing protection level provided under the NMP it is intended to replace. In other words, it would re-open whaling on whale populations already severely depleted enough to have been protected before the moratorium. Another problem is that the RMP would calculate quotas largely based on sightings-surveys conducted by the whaling nations themselves. Moreover, that it would take fifteen years for quotas to be reduced to zero should the surveys not be conducted. Many believe this period to be too long.

The fierce pressure being exerted on the Commission by the whaling countries means that the RMP is likely to be accepted and applied and commercial whaling reopened on some whale populations. However, given the failure of previous management procedures some countries have already expressed grave reservations about implementing yet another. Especially with the compromises being made to placate the whalers. In theory, the RMP model proposed would deliberately reduce a targeted whale population to 72% of its original numbers. The implications of this were not lost on the New Zealand Commissioner. He made his Government’s position clear at the 1991 IWC meeting by refusing to endorse the RMP. His concern is understandable. For instance, if applied to the-southern hemisphere minke whales, the RMP would permit the killing of at least 100,000 whales in the Antarctic to reduce the population to the MSY target level of 72%. This was unacceptable to the Government of New Zealand. Other countries have expressed similar concerns.

With the IWC agreeing an Antarctic whale sanctuary in 1994, some governments have shown an interest in permitting limited coastal whaling as an alternative to pelagic whaling operations. The IWC’s adoption of the Antarctic whale sanctuary may have created a political deal of this kind. Commercial whaling seems set to return.

The Case against the Resumption of Commercial Whaling

The IWC’s indefinite moratorium on commercial whaling came into force with the 1985/6 pelagic and 1986 coastal whaling seasons. However, at the start of the moratorium, five nations Japan, Norway, former Soviet Union, Iceland and Republic of Korea continued whaling, either by lodging official objections to this decision or by whaling under the guise of scientific research. As a consequence, around 15,000 whales have been killed during the moratorium, and this is over and above whales caught for subsistence purposes by indigenous peoples. Some nations are demanding the resumption of commercial whaling. Others such as Norway, have resumed commercial whaling in defiance of world opinion and the IWC.

It is because the whalers have relentlessly pushed one whale population after another to the edge of extinction, and never shown any serious commitment to conservation, that the moratorium was necessary. While the moratorium has been in place, there has been no change in the attitude or behaviour of the whaling nations. Nothing to suggest that if full-scale commercial whaling is allowed to resume that the tragic history of overkill will not be repeated. Indeed, it seems certain that it will be. Dr. Colin Clark, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia, wrote in 1976 that: “International institutions such as the International Whaling Commission… seem to have been established on the assumption that the economic interests of the industry would, if properly channelled, automatically ensure the conservation of the resource”. However, he pointed out this may not be the case: “The economic incentives for conservation of such resources may be quite minimal, as far as the commercial industry is concerned”.

Whales increase at much slower rates than money invested in the bank. It has been estimated that whales may reproduce at 1%- 4% of the total population annually, while the income from a dead whale would be likely to accrue some 10% interest in the bank. Economically speaking, it makes much more sense for the whaling industry to kill as many whales as they can and as quickly as possible, reinvest the proceeds and thereby maximise profit. Sustainable harvesting, even if it were possible, would simply be less profitable.

Meanwhile, if commercial whaling resumes under the present circumstances, economic logic contradicts the very objectives of the 1946 Convention “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks”. It will only be a matter of time before the market forces that led to the destruction of the largest of the great whales in the Antarctic will destroy the remainder. Yet there is an alternative, profitable and sustainable use of whales: whale-watching. In 1992, a report concluded that in 1991 four million people went on whale-watching trips worldwide. The revenues for this industry reaching some $318 million (£I85m). In 1992, the IWC established a working group to examine the global potential of whale-watching under the criteria of “Desiring to encourage the further development of whale-watching as a sustainable use of cetacean resources”. (IWC 45/21) There is a strong and increasing case that whales are, quite literally, worth far more alive than dead.

Even if the RMP was proven to prevent any further depletion of whale populations there are other problems that will make strict application of and adherence to, the RMP very unlikely. It was these same problems that contributed to the failure of the NMP in arresting the catastrophic decline of whale populations before the moratorium came into force.

Operational failings of the IWC include the lack of any enforcement mechanisms, the absence of a comprehensive observer scheme to monitor whaling operations and ensure strict adherence to quotas, and the existence of the “objection” procedure, which enables contracting governments to opt out of decisions they don’t like. For example, Japan lodged an “objection” to the moratorium decision and killed over 5,000 whales in the first two years of the ban (IWC Japan: Prog Reps 1987/88).

The recent behaviour of the whaling countries reinforces long-standing doubts about their commitment to whaling being managed in a responsible manner and in conformity with international regulations. For example, at the 1991 meeting, Japan, Iceland and Norway proposed an alternative RMP model that contravened explicit Scientific Committee conclusions, and opposed the efforts of the majority of member states to ensure that under the RMP whaling would not take place on seriously depleted whale stocks.

These same countries have pursued so-called “scientific” whaling programmes killing thousands of whales contrary to Scientific Committee advice and Commission recommendations. Neither have any of these countries displayed a willingness to improve national measures for enforcement and monitoring of any future whaling operations, or to permit implementation of international observer arrangements for all of their whaling activities, despite past violations of the regulations.

For example, the Russian Federation presented evidence to the IWC’s Scientific Committee in 1994 which revealed horrifying details of catch under-reporting by four Soviet factory ships operating in the Southern ocean. (IWC\\SC\\46) Between 1948-80 this fleet killed 88,888 whales more than was reported to the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics showed that the fleet Killed over 48,000 humpback whales, but reported a catch of less than 3,000. The fleet recorded a catch of 10 pygmy blue whales when it actually slaughtered over 8,000. Further serious under-reporting included catches of right, sei, sperm, Bryde’s, and other unidentified whale species. These shocking revelations prompted IWC Secretary Ray Gambell to say: “We knew there was a black hole in our calculations which did not make sense. Now we know that thousands of whales we thought were protected have been systematically slaughtered. The enormity of the deception is staggering.”

Other enforcement problems exist. The moratorium has also provided the opportunity for ruthless people to profiteer at the increasing, and sometimes incredible, value of whale meat in Japan. Illegal consignments, involving hundreds of tons of whale meat have been intercepted coming from Russia, Norway, Iceland and south-east Asia. Recently, the meat of protected species such as humpback whales has been identified on sale in department stores in Japan. Without the moratorium, these smuggling operations involving illegally caught whales may have continued undetected. As it is, no one can be sure as to the real scale of the smuggling problem. In these circumstances it would be extremely foolhardy to lift the moratorium and entrust the survival of the world’s remaining whale populations to the whalers that decimated them in the first place.

The IWC drew up a set of rules for implementing the RMP in 1992. This is known as the Revised Management Scheme (RMS). The RMS is yet to be agreed, not least because it is unenforceable. However as more whales are killed each year there is growing concern that a political compromise will be struck that will allow commercial whaling to resume.

Can Whaling Be Humane?

There is inherent cruelty in the killing methods applied in commercial whaling. Even with the improvements that have been made – for example, the IWC’s ban on use of the “cold” or non-explosive harpoon in 1983. Nonetheless, the way in which whales are still being killed is fundamentally inhumane. The British Government made this point in an opening address by Minister Jerry Wiggin to the 1981 IWC meeting: “We remain concerned that the methods used to kill whales are unjustifiably cruel … This is one of the factors which has led us to conclude that a ban on commercial whaling should be introduced … The Workshop on Humane Killing Techniques held in November 1980 considered that to be humane death must be without pain, stress or distress perceptible to the animal. In the working environment of whaling this ideal may be difficult to realise, Nevertheless, the present methods, including the explosive harpoon, are a very long way from meeting these criteria … In the longer term replacement for the explosive harpoon must clearly be found.”

This statement echoed the conclusions of an Australian Government inquiry into whaling in 1978, chaired by Sir Sydney Frost: “there is a significant difference in the methods used for killing whales and the humane practices required by law for the slaughter of cattle, sheep and pigs. In abattoirs and most slaughterhouses the animal is stunned instantaneously and then immediately killed, dying while still unconscious.

The death of a whale is caused as a result of its organs being shattered by iron fragments from the head of the harpoon. We leave on one side the fear and terror of the chase and the exacerbation of the pain as the whale is winched into the boat… [If] the death is not instantaneous, or does not happen quickly, the animal is required to suffer more from these truly terrible injuries for at least three minutes and more usually up to five or seven minutes until a killer harpoon can be fired. There can be only one conclusion: that in these cases death is caused most inhumanely”. The report concluded that: “The fact that these cases are a significant proportion of the total leads to the inevitable conclusion that the technique for killing whales at present used is not humane”.

In 1947, Dr. Harry D. Lillie addressed a meeting at University College London after spending several months as a physician on board a British Antarctic whaling factory ship. Describing the hunting of whales using the explosive harpoon he said, “The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it”.

The minke whale is the smallest of the baleen whales, and the only great whale species left in any numbers to be worthwhile hunting commercially. As the traditional explosive harpoon spoiled too much of the meat, the smaller but more powerful penthrite harpoon was developed and promoted as a more humane alternative for killing whales. However, this is a misconception. The penthrite harpoon is no more humane than any other explosive harpoon. Scientific data compiled from Norwegian and Japanese hunts on minke whales show death time still average several minutes and over one hour in some cases.

It is claimed that the penthrite harpoon kills by shock rather than laceration, but in order to do this, it must strike and detonate close to the brain or central nervous system. Such accuracy is impossible given that a whale is a moving target and shows little of its body at the surface for the harpoon gunner to aim for. Worse, these harpoons have been known to pass through the smaller body of the minke whale inflicting terrible but not instantaneously fatal injuries.

Japanese whalers in the Antarctic frequently have to despatch a harpooned animal by electrocution a process described in a paper by Shiegu Hasui, Director of the Japanese Whaling Association in 1980: “Since 1973, various studies on the use of electric lances have been conducted. It is believed now that a 110V AC power source is most effective. With this power source, a whale dies within 4 to 5 minutes after the start of electrocution.” Another paper presented to the IWC in 1980 by Yoshihiko Hayashi of the University of Tokyo, describes the electrocution of 42 minke whales: “When drawn toward the bow, each of the 42 minke whales was observed to have had movements in one way or another. These included breathing, blinking, locomotion or convulsion. He continued: “Among them, 16 whales were considered evidently conscious. In other words, they showed violent movements, trying to escape. Also, when lying still, these whales blinked their eyes. As to the remaining 26, no violent movement was observed. Some of them moved from time to time, while others had continuous convulsions or lay still, though breathing. It was not confirmed if the 26 were conscious or not.”

What Mr. Hayashi failed to say is that whales are voluntary breathers and therefore must have been conscious it they were recorded as breathing. Adding to an already grim picture, he also reported an average time of almost four minutes between the initial harpooning and subsequent electric lancing of the whale. (IWC/SC/32)

In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, humane killing regulations for the slaughter of domestic livestock require that the animal be rendered unconscious before being killed. The Japanese Government has argued that we should treat whales with the same attitude as domestic livestock as both are killed for food. Yet they do not argue for comparable humane standards of slaughter for whales. John Gummer, the former British Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food responded to the Japanese view in 1988 by saying: “What they do not appreciate is that we are very tough in this country on the way animals are killed for meat. I would not allow a farmer to throw a harpoon at a cow and allow it to run through five fields before it was killed”.

Mr. Gummer re-asserted the British Governments concern at the cruelty of whaling in his opening address to the 1992 IWC meeting: “We have long been concerned about the humaneness of the methods used to kill whales which many people regard as sentient animals. My predecessors have spoken to you about this since the late 1970s … and must insist upon improvements as a precondition of any lifting of the moratorium.” The UK delegation has successfully pressed for special IWC workshops on humane killing and the issue will be addressed again at the 2006 IWC meeting in St. Kitts.

In a 1991 report entitled “The Cruel Seas – Man’s inhumanity to whales”, the RSPCA concluded that: “Based on this evidence, it is the view of the RSPCA, and countless others, that the killing of whales is completely unacceptable. The methods used are inhumane, and, irrespective of moral and conservation arguments, it is upon the grounds of this inhumanity that we urge a complete cessation of all commercial whaling. The RSPCA would also like to see an end to present whaling, carried out under special scientific permits”.

There is no humane way to kill a whale at sea and overwhelming evidence that the practice of hunting and killing whales can never be humane. Whaling remains inherently cruel and unacceptable.

Other Ethical Considerations

Even if it was possible to have an economically viable commercial whaling industry, which did not deplete whale, stocks, would it be desirable, or even morally right, to have one? There are strong arguments for opposing whaling on purely ethical grounds, as was pointed out in a paper presented to the 1981 IWC meeting by the Australian Government: “There has developed in some countries a strong view that whaling activities should not be carried on any longer because of the ethical implications of taking whales. They consider the method of killing is not humane and the industry cannot be justified as satisfying important human needs by killing animals of such special significance as the whale.”

Ethical objections to commercial whaling arise from a number of different concerns. The apparent intelligence of whales is perhaps the best known of these; the notion of killing creatures whose degree of sentience may be comparable with our own is morally repugnant to many people, particularly when it is done in the interests of an unnecessary industry. Moreover, only wealthy developed nations are currently engaged in, or intending to resume, commercial whaling. As such, whale meat cannot be described as a vital nutritional source, and other whale products that were important in the past can now be manufactured synthetically. The reality is that whale meat has become a luxury food on the Japanese market that can retail at £80 per pound (Daimaru department store, Shimonoseki 2002).

The 1980 IWC meeting on “The Ethics of Killing Cetaceans” noted many ethical considerations. One of these was that cetaceans “as a common heritage are a matter of international concern”. In fact, this principle is embodied within the preamble to the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), on which the IWC was founded: “to safeguard for future generations the great natural resources represented by the whale stocks”.
The history of whaling, with its systematic destruction of one whale species after another, represents what should be a common heritage for future generations being sacrificed for the short-term economic interests of a tiny minority of nations.

The issues of whale intelligence and the inherent cruelty of whaling are not the only ethical arguments against whaling. If whales were less intelligent, or whaling more humane, objections would remain. Commercial whaling, even at its present much reduced level, cannot be considered in isolation as the hunting of a few stocks of one species of whale. Rather, it is but the latest stage in an industry, which has brought almost all the species of great whales to the brink of extinction.

A 1991 report on ethics and whaling cited an alternative approach,” … human beings are part of an inter-dependent biotic community that includes all animal and plant species … The welfare of all aspects of the environment is therefore the benchmark against which the moral value of human activities should be measured.” The report concluded, “The protection of wild cetaceans of all species into the foreseeable future should become an international social objective of high priority.” (Whaling? An Ethical Approach. S. Wilson and W. Jordan, Care for the Wild, 1991.)

Environmental Threats

Whales are already suffering from the cumulative effects of environmental degradation, such as habitat destruction and disturbance, entanglement in fishing gears, over-fishing of prey species, and the accumulation of persistent toxins from marine pollution within their bodies. These environmental pressures now pose serious but unquantifiable threats to the long-term recovery and indeed survival of whale populations worldwide.

The Antarctic whale stocks, mostly devastated by over-hunting earlier this century, and now protected by the IWC’s Southern Ocean Sanctuary, are still under threat. Ozone depletion caused by atmospheric industrial pollution with chemicals such as CFCs (chloroflurocarbons) is at its most serious over Antarctica. Production of phytoplankton has already been shown to be reduced by 6-12% due to increased exposure to ultraviolet-B radiation during the annual thinning of the ozone layer over Antarctica, the “ozone hole”. (Ozone Depletion: Ultra-violet radiation and phytoplankton biology in Antarctic waters. Smith et al, Science, 1992). Any decline in phytoplankton will ultimately have an impact on the productivity of zooplankton such as krill, the staple diet of Antarctic baleen whales, as well as many other species. it has been estimated that a 10% reduction in plankton production could result in a loss of between 5 – 100 million tonnes of krill (Voyteck, M A (1990) Ambio 19:52-61).

Meanwhile, human demand for krill resulted in almost 400,000 tonnes being harvested in 1991. However, this could rise sharply at any time should a commercial market be developed, placing humans in direct competition with whales, seals, fish and seabirds for a diminishing food source, and one on which the entire Antarctic marine ecosystem depends.

However, ozone depletion is not restricted to the southern hemisphere. Increasing losses of atmospheric ozone are being recorded over the Arctic and Europe each spring. Productivity of essential plankton in Arctic waters may also be depressed and whales are ultimately at risk in these waters too. Increasing UV-B radiation due to ozone loss will adversely affect aquatic life with serious repercussions for the entire marine food web and ultimately human beings, “increased UV-B exposure will have unforeseen consequences for the whole food chain. This could threaten food supplies for millions of people: more than 30% of the world’s animal protein for human consumption comes from the sea.” (The Failure of the Montreal Protocol, Greenpeace International, 1990)
As global temperature rises as a consequence of increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, this will effect entire marine ecosystems, including whales. Scientists are convinced that increases in carbon dioxide levels will cause global warming and that this will lead to alterations in ocean currents. This would affect marine productivity, and threaten the food chain in the whale’s feeding grounds, as well as devastating breeding sites.

There is even a link between ozone depletion and global warming. Increasing UV-B may reduce phytoplankton that, “…remove large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A decrease in phytoplankton could leave the atmosphere with higher carbon dioxide concentrations, and so increase the greenhouse effect.” (Environmental Effects of Ozone Depletion. UNEP 1989)

The cumulative effects of these global environmental threats have not yet been assessed. While it is not possible to confidently predict their combined impact on the marine ecosystems, it is nonetheless potentially devastating.

The oceans are increasingly subject to other forms of pollution. Evidence is growing that some other highly toxic organochlorine compounds such as DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichicroethane), Lindane and similar pesticides, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) which were once widely used in the electrical industry, have a debilitating effect on marine mammal health and reproduction. These compounds have already been found in significant concentrations in Antarctic seals. Although scientific opinion is divided as to the extent of the threat posed to marine mammals by such compounds, some believe that if all of the PCB’s still in use, in storage or buried in landfills, eventually leach into the marine environment, then “the extinction of marine mammals is inevitable” (Cummins J.E. “The Ecologist” Volume 18, No.6, 1988).

In addition, habitat loss and degradation, combined with the effect of destructive fisheries practices such as overfishing, and entanglement in fishing gears, constitute increasingly significant pressures on the remaining whale populations. For example, an IWC sponsored Scientific Workshop at 1a Jolla, California in 1990 concluded that seven populations of small cetaceans (dolphins and porpoises) were dying at unsustainable levels. Moreover, populations of baleen whales such as right, pygmy right, minke, Bryde’s, humpback and fin were also being effected to an unknown degree. Sperm whales were also being ensnared in driftnets in the Mediterranean with unknown consequences for the population. (Report of the Workshop on Mortality of Cetaceans in Passive Fishing Nets and Traps, RepGN IWC 1991)

Perhaps the real significance of this report is our inability to assess the scale and severity of the problem. However, given the mounting threats to marine ecosystems, threats that are increasing with incalculable but potentially disastrous consequences for the health and well-being of whale populations, any resumption of commercial whaling would be grossly irresponsible.

Do We Need to Cull Whales?

Some nations now argue that marine mammals must be “culled” to restore a balance in the oceans to protect commercial fisheries. However, the natural relative abundance of predator and prey species in the marine environment has already been upset by intensive fishing and excessive whaling and sealing. The original balance of species in our oceans could not be restored by increasing the exploitation of predators. In fact, it is the abundance of prey that controls predator numbers and there is no sound basis for claims that reducing marine mammal populations any further will be of any significant benefit to the fishing industry, even if this were a desirable goal.

With the complexity of interrelationships of species in the oceans, claims that marine mammal populations must be controlled have never been scientifically substantiated. In fact, whale populations have been reduced to historical lows with fish stocks still declining. Before commercial whaling there were many more whales and fish. What is certain is that marine mammals like whales and seals make convenient and profitable scapegoats, when in fact; it is human over-fishing and other destructive fisheries practices, and their impact on commercial fish stocks, which need to be curtailed.
The whaling countries, Japan, Iceland and Norway increasingly argue that whales need to be culled to protect fisheries. However, this is only since the commercial whaling moratorium was introduced and their attempts to re-open commercial whaling have failed.

The Norwegian Government claims that the north-east Atlantic minke stock is eating too much commercial fish. Yet this stock of whales was considered so seriously depleted that it was given total protection from commercial hunting, by the IWC, in 1985. In recommending protected status for the north-east Atlantic minkes, the Commission’s Scientific Committee concluded that this whale stock had probably been reduced to well below half of its pre-exploitation level. This decision was upheld at the IWC meeting in Iceland in 1991. The Scientific Committee agreed that this stock had been declining, despite Norwegian claims to the contrary, for thirty years.

There is, of course, great uncertainty as to the size, never mind the status, of whale populations. For example, the Norwegian Government asserts there are over 87,000 minke whales in the north-east Atlantic. They have used this figure to justify a resumption of commercial whaling. Norway’s calculation has come under close scrutiny by the IWC of late and it is certainly a considerable over-estimate.

In 1990, Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the current Norwegian Prime Minister said: “The scale of deforestation, soil erosion and loss of species is increasing. We already know enough to start to act and act more forcefully. Two years later, the Norwegian Government announced a resumption of commercial whaling, on a severely depleted whale population, in open defiance of an international conservation treaty. Even without the current moratorium, it is more than likely that the north-east Atlantic minkes would remain protected under the RMP\\RMS.

Mrs. Brundtland’s fine words have been exposed as total hypocrisy. In fact, commercial whaling was resumed in Norway for party political reasons, not because the seriously depleted minke whale population is eating too many fish. All the evidence suggests that Norway’s current whaling is scientifically, as well as morally, indefensible.

International Opinion on Commercial Whaling

The question of renewed commercial whaling was highlighted in the negotiations for the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development, the “Earth Summit”, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The New Zealand delegate to the third preparatory meeting in August 1991 described the Summit as an opportunity “to ensure that all cetaceans will be preserved for the future generations”. The fourth preparatory meeting, in March 1992, reaffirmed the principle that cetaceans and other marine mammals have a special status under international law, which allows for their full protection from exploitation.

In 1972, the U.N. Stockholm Conference on the Environment voted unanimously for an immediate ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling. It took a further fourteen years before the IWC yielded to world opinion and implemented the indefinite moratorium existing today. Although the ban has been in place for over 18 years, the sad reality is that over 25,000 whales have been slaughtered since it was introduced. This year (2006) over 2,000 whales will be killed by Japan, Norway and Iceland in defiance of the ban.

In response to public opinion, the European Union (EU) banned the import of all whale products in 1982. Today, the EU Habitats Directive bans any commercial whaling by EU members, however Campaign Whale is concerned that this legislation is seriously flawed and further legislation will be necessary to prevent any resumption of commercial whaling in the future, if Norway and/or Iceland join the EU.

All the indications are that national and international opposition to commercial whaling has not diminished, and the vast majority of world opinion remains opposed to commercial whaling.


This report sets out the arguments against any resumption of commercial whaling on conservation, environmental, ethical, and humane grounds. A resumption of commercial whaling would signify the revival of an industry, which has systematically destroyed one whale population after another. Many species have shown little if any signs of recovery despite, in some cases, decades of protection from hunting.

Commercial whaling is an industry, which has resisted international controls and scientific advice in pursuit of profit. The resulting catastrophic decline in whale populations is a matter of historical fact. Even today, this same attitude persists. Japan, Iceland, Norway have killed many thousands of whales between them during the IWC ban. Over 25,000 whales killed against the wishes of the IWC.

The whalers have repeatedly obstructed the IWC, withheld data about their whaling activities, and violated or openly ignored IWC decisions in order to maximise profits. There is no guarantee that they will not do so again.

There is little point in drawing up new rules for future commercial whaling while the IWC is unable to enforce them, and no effective inspection programme exists to ensure that whale quotas are strictly adhered to. As the New Zealand commissioner commented on the proposed adoption of the Revised Management Procedure in 1991:”No matter how scientifically sensible that may seen, it will appear to the people of New Zealand that we are repeating past mistakes all over again”.

There is no doubt that millions of people around the world will share this view. All the evidence points to the fact that should the moratorium be lifted then the exploitation and destruction of the last great whale population left on Earth will have begun.

The completion of the Revised Management Scheme will not justify the lifting of the ban on commercial whaling. There are other problems, apart from the lack of a reliable management procedure, to be overcome before a resumption of commercial whaling could ever be considered. For example, the whalers argue that the North Atlantic fin and minke, and Antarctic minke whale populations, are large enough to withstand commercial exploitation.

However, new estimates of the size of these populations produced by the whalers during the ban may not be reliable. Neither is there evidence that whale numbers are increasing, static or declining. Scientists recognise that only many years of careful monitoring will provide this information, which is essential before any possible return to commercial whaling. As already detailed in this report, current methods used to kill whales remain unacceptably cruel and are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future.

The world’s surviving whale populations face many threats to their survival other than directed hunting. These include marine pollution, over-fishing of prey species, the incidental killing of whales in fishing gears such as driftnets, boat collisions and human encroachment into, and destruction of sensitive habitats such as breeding areas.

Worse, the future of whale populations may be jeopardised by the massive disruption of marine ecosystems threatened by the depletion of the ozone layer. The resulting increase in UV-B radiation is destroying plankton, which in turn reduces zooplankton such as krill, the staple diet of many species of baleen whales, and other marine life.

Global warming caused by the build up of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases in the atmosphere, may cause changes in ocean currents and further disrupt food availability for whales already diminished by commercial over-fishing.

With increasing environmental pressures on whale populations, any resumption of commercial killing is clearly out of the question. The fact is that the only management procedure introduced by the IWC that has come close to working for the conservation of the world’s whales is the moratorium itself.

This report presents a compelling case against any resumption of commercial whaling. Sadly, the slaughter of whales is increasing and there is a real fear that a political compromise will be struck that will allow its resumption. That would be a total disaster for whale conservation efforts. Surely, the whales have suffered enough at our hands.


Campaign Whale is an influential, non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting whales, dolphins and porpoises and their habitats. The organisation was established in 1980 and is managed by founding Director, Andy Ottaway, a well-respected leading expert in whale and dolphin protection. Campaign Whale benefits from the support of a number of long-term volunteers.

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