Last week the International Whaling Commission (IWC) had its annual meeting in Panama. Every year pro- and anti-whaling nations get together to battle it out on the issue of whale hunting – once a huge moral issue, now increasingly on the margins.
On the agenda this year were whaling quotas for indigenous groups – which were approved – and proposals for a southern Atlantic whale sanctuary, which were shot down by Japan and allies. ‘Scientific’ (i.e. commercial) whaling by Japan, Norway and Iceland looks set to continue, with the IWC turning a blind eye to the continued flouting of its 25-year moratorium.
But outside forces may be changing things more than intergovernmental negotiations. Japanese consumers are eating less whale meat, according to IKAN (the Japanese dolphin and whale action network). Per capita consumption has declined steadily since the 1960s, and now stands at 24g. In comparison, the average Japanese eats 30kg of seafood and a similar amount of meat. Pressure from NGOs also forced Japan’s whaling fleet to abandon its Antarctic hunt early this year; of the roughly 1,200 tonnes of whale meat they did catch three quarters went unsold at auction.
Red herrings, blue whales
This is good news. Reduced demand at home, coupled with international condemnation, may eventually force Japan’s politicians to rethink their support for an outdated industry on its last knees. Outrage at recent revelations – such as the use of $30m in earthquake recovery money to subsidise whaling – will add further pressure.
But it is wrong to assume that an end to whaling will save the whales. The IWC’s emphasis on this is a red herring, as some conservation groups have pointed out this week. Several issues of far greater importance to whale conservation are being crowded out in the moral outrage over intentional hunting.
• First, the number of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) caught unintentionally in fishing gear vastly outnumbers those caught in whaling operations. A 2003 estimate put the number at 300,000 annually, an order of magnitude greater than all the whales hunted since 1986. The numbers also mask the fact that bycatch is pushing several species closer to extinction – such as the critically endangered Mexican vaquita.
• The growth in commercial shipping is also a serious threat to many whale populations, from direct strikes and noise pollution. Unlike whaling, shipping is growing at around 10% a year, and some of the busiest routes – such as the US eastern seaboard – are important whale hotspots.
• Unregulated whale watching is also increasingly affecting whales. Off Sri Lanka, for example, blue whales may be pushed into shipping lanes by tourist boats with tragic consequences.
• Climate change is opening up areas of the Arctic to industrial development, in particular oil and gas exploration. The consequences of a spill, as well as the disruption from seismic surveys and increased shipping, could be disastrous for species such as bowhead and western gray whales.
The IWC and the pro/anti-whaling brigade are failing to give these threats the prominence they allow whaling. This could have severe repercussions. The baiji – or Yangtze river dolphin – was eventually driven to extinction not through hunting but a combination of bycatch, damming and habitat alteration, shipping, and pollution. By ignoring these we could be sleepwalking into the same fate for other whales. As Sam Turvey, the English scientist who documented the loss of the baiji in his book ‘Witness to Extinction’, wrote:
“If the baiji has to have an epitaph, then let us hope that, at least, it may help other species to be saved from the manifold mistakes that were made time and again in this pathetic tale”.