What is Whaling?
Whaling is the hunting and killing of whales for commercial, recreational or scientific purposes. Once a massive industry, providing materials for a range of industrial processes - as immortalised in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" - whaling today is carried on only by a handful of countries, to the disapproval of the majority of countries.
Following international concern about animal welfare and the preservation of whales, an international moratorium to suspend commercial whaling was agreed in 1982 through the International Whaling Commission, but a number of countries continue to hunt whales for "scientific" purposes within the IWC, principally Iceland and Japan. The moratorium came into effect in 1986.
Norway registered its objection to the moratorium and as such is not bound by its rules. It hunts whales for both scientific and commercial purposes- the only nation to openly do so. A number of other countries, which are not parties to the IWC, hunt whales, including Canada and Indonesia.
In addition, some traditional communities still hunt whales for subsistence purposes, specifically Inuit populations in Canada, Greenland and Alaska. Their rights to continue hunting whales are recognised by the IWC, which sets annual quotas.
Whaling has a long tradition in many maritime communities. Many whaling societies regard the practice as an integral part of their cultural identities, a central issue in today's disputes.
Whaling began as a purely coastal activity, whereby whales spotted from the shore were driven on to beaches and killed there. Necessarily, only small whales could be killed in this way. The development of the "drogue" (a harpoon with a buoyant object attached, intended to tire whales, making them easier to approach and kill) and improvements in maritime technology, permitted the hunting of larger animals and hunting away from the coasts. The efficiency of the whalers and the demand for their products, meat, oil and baleen, improved at a faster rate than populations could replenish, even in medieval times.
By the late 16th Century, right whales - so-called because they were the "right" whales to hunt, as they were placid, rich in baleen and oil, and floated after killing - were virtually extinct in the north Atlantic. The early 17th Century saw European whaling heading north, into the Arctic region, in pursuit of bowhead whales. This fishery extended into the Pacific Arctic in the 18th Century, as Atlantic stocks declined, and the American industry boomed, despite being all but wiped out during the War of Independence. In the 19th Century, self-sufficient whaling ships at sea for months or even years on end hunted every kind of whale across the whole of the world's seas.
The late 19th Century saw the development of steam-driven ships and ship-mounted harpoon guns, rendering the practice considerably safer for whalemen. The industry continued to thrive in the first half of the 20th Century, and stocks of many types of whale dwindled to unsustainably low levels.
The first major international agreement on whaling, entitled the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, was signed in Washington on the 2nd December 1946. The purpose of the convention was to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry". The Convention came in the wake of growing international concern about whale numbers and a slumping market for whale oil, with the rise of petrol and other fossil fuels.
The schedule to the Convention set out measures, which amongst other things: provided for the complete protection of certain species; designated specified areas as whale sanctuaries; set limits on the number and size of whales which could be taken; prescribed open and closed seasons and areas for whaling; and prohibited the capture of suckling calves and female whales accompanied by calves.
However, the wave of environmentalism that sprang up in the 1960s picked up the decimation of the whale population as a leading theme, with "Save the Whale" becoming one of its most successful campaigns of the 1970s, and bringing groups like Greenpeace to prominence. The massive international campaign against whaling, which saw many countries join the IWC with the sole aim of achieving a ban, led to the adoption of the moratorium by the IWC in 1982.
But during 2003 a number of countries moved to recommence commercial whaling, arguing that the hiatus had allowed whale stocks to recover sufficiently enough for hunting to continue without conservation damage. Opponents of the moratorium argued that the high numbers of minke whale were actually threatening fish stocks in some areas.
In the years following the adoption of the moratorium, the IWC asked its Scientific Committee to develop a practical approach to providing advice on setting catch limits for commercial whaling. The Scientific Committee developed the Revised Management Procedure (RMP) as a method for calculating sustainable removal levels consistent with the objectives of the IWC.
However, the RMP cannot be implemented until all aspects of the Revised Management Scheme (RMS), which covers other aspects of commercial whaling such as observer schemes and catch recording methods, are incorporated into the Schedule to the Convention. Progress on the RMS proved slow and difficult and the International Whaling Commission adopted Resolution 2000-3 which urged that the process to complete the RMS “proceeds expeditiously”.
Although some further progress was made, the IWC recognised that discussions had reached impasse in 2006 and despite the item being retained on the agenda to allow governments to work towards development of an RMS during the intersessional period, no reports were received and no further work was identified on the RMS.
Nevertheless, the Scientific Committee is continuing work on how the RMP could be implemented.
Conservationists argue that whaling is unacceptable on two counts: firstly the animals' suffering: and secondly the threat to the preservation of certain species.
Whales are normally killed by harpoon, with the most common type being grenade-tipped and designed to explode inside the animal. However, as fast-moving creatures living in rough seas, whales frequently have to be harpooned repeatedly before they are killed. Animal welfare advocates argue that whaling is particularly cruel considering the highly developed mental capacities of whales, which means they have complex social groupings and an enhanced ability to not just feel pain but "suffer".
The industry claims that the average time taken for whales to die is two minutes, but opponents claim that this is closer to an hour.
Although whale populations are difficult to measure and their lifestyles difficult to investigate, extensive efforts are made by IWC members. It is undeniable that many species of whale have recovered considerably since the moratorium came into force, and this has led many whaling nations to seek a revival of commercial hunting. The sustainability of existing whale stocks is however a point of bitter dispute within the IWC.
The most vigorous opponents of commercial whaling are the Anglo-Saxon countries, such as the USA, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Its principal supporters are Norway, Iceland and Japan.
Those countries that support whaling argue, in addition to their claims about sustainability, that hunting whales is an important part of their culture and critical to the survival of their fishing industries. Many acknowledge that some hunting occurs amongst their fleets outside the IWC's jurisdiction. They also point to the IWC's recognition of aboriginal traditions of whaling in contrast to its rejection of their own traditions.
The explosion of whale watching tourism in the last few years, notably in Iceland and Norway, has led to conflict between the tourism and commercial industry.
Tourism groups argue that whale watching will bring in far more income than a return to commercial whaling ever will, in addition to being environmentally friendly and improving the countries' status in the eyes of the world.
There are 13 species of great whales many of which exist as separate populations in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern Hemisphere oceans:
Bowhead (or Greenland right whale)
North Atlantic right whale
North Pacific right whale
Southern right whale
Common minke whale
Antarctic minke whale
The first twelve of these are baleen (whalebone) whales, filter feeders with baleen plates instead of teeth and the sperm whale is the largest toothed whale.
Source: International Whaling Commission - 2013
Presently three types of whaling take place.
The first of these is commercial whaling conducted either under objection or reservation to the moratorium.
The second, called aboriginal subsistence whaling is to support the needs of indigenous peoples.
The third type is whaling under special permit to kill, take and treat whales for scientific rsearch.
Under current IWC regulations, aboriginal subsistence whaling is permitted for:
Denmark (Greenland, fin, bowhead, humpback and minke whales),
The Russian Federation (Siberia, gray and bowhead whales),
St Vincent and The Grenadines (Bequia, humpback whales)
The USA (Alaska, bowhead whales; Washington State, gray whales).
Based on the information on need and scientific advice, the Commission sets catch limits, recently in five-year blocks.
Source: International Whaling Commission - 2013
“So-called scientific whaling is a backward, discredited and outmoded practice that produces useless science.
“Korea should be congratulated for rejecting the shambolic and cruel course sadly still being pursued by Japan’s Fisheries Agency and for instead embracing 21st Century science.
“IFAW is happy to offer our experience and expertise as Korea pursues its important non-lethal research objectives.”
Patrick Ramage, Director of IFAW’s Global Whale Programme, welcoming official confirmation that the Republic of Korea plans to pursue non-lethal whale research rather than ‘scientific whaling’. – January 2013
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