Whale hunting isn't necessarily evil
We’ve all heard the slogan “save the whales”. The majority of Australians (and media outlets) take it for granted that hunting a whale is a natural evil. We automatically think of Free Willy or Greenpeace fighting the good fight, but there’s a bit more to the debate.
Technically there are only two nations that whale illegally for commercial purposes. Norway and Iceland both hunt these large mammals in direct defiance of the International Whaling Commission, which banned commercial whaling in 1982. Then there’s Japan, which whales under a permit for scientific research that’s pretty flimsy at the best of times and is about as elementary as that potato clock you might have made back in primary school.
Japan also commits an added no-no of whaling within the protected Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary situated practically in Australia’s backyard. This is the act that Sea Shepherd Australia protests and disrupts each whaling season, including via its Operation Relentless which was launched in December.
Comparing juicy steaks
Australians proudly eat around 190,000 tonnes of meat each year. Most of this is beef, pork, and chicken, but in recent years we’re even started to consider the kangaroo (that animal on our coat of arms) as fair game. Shouldn’t whales also be treated as a commodity to be consumed? Unless you’re a vegetarian, it’s a little hypocritical to call Willy sacred but chow down on a juicy steak.
I posed this question to Jeff Hansen, Managing Director of Sea Shepherd Australia. He says whales were “taken to the brink of extinction” and therefore should be protected from eating. “Whale numbers have still not recovered. If we cannot protect whales in a whale sanctuary, what can we protect?” (Hansen added that the entire Sea Shepherd fleet is vegan, and no animal products are consumed on board.)
Threatening any animal with extinction simply for human subsistence is no doubt deplorable. Yet the species most commonly fished to by pro-whaling nations is the common minke whale, which is rated as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is this species that is exclusively hunted by Norway, and makes up the bulk of Iceland’s and Japan’s whaling quotas. So if the whaling of non-threatened species can be sustainable, shouldn’t it be allowed?
This is the line of thought taken by Tim Flannery, 2007 Australian of the Year and head of the Climate Council, who for the past decade has been a surprising supporter of whaling. His bottom line is sustainability, as he told News Corp Australia back in 2007. “In terms of sustainability, you can't be sure that the Japanese whaling is entirely unsustainable. It’s hard to imagine that the whaling would lead to a new decline in population,” he said. In 2003, Flannery also wrote a Quarterly Essay titled Beautiful Lies, in which he said: "if these animals are closer in intelligence to the sheep than the dog, is it morally wrong to eat them if they can be harvested sustainably?”
Whales are relatively small-brained, but many would disagree with Flannery, including Hansen. He describes them as “highly intelligent (more than us) and socially complex creatures.” The documentary Blackfish, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, also makes a compelling case for the under-appreciated emotional intelligence of orcas.
It is an exceedingly tricky task to definitively compare one animal brain with another. In doubt, I turned to the wisdom of Run Burgundy and his ‘Chart of Human Positionality’, as presented on Conan. Although the list was by no means exhaustive, the closest thing to a whale was a narwhal, which was placed on equal footing with homo sapiens - pretty impressive stuff, huh?
I did also consult “science”. Whales are indeed intelligent creatures but, on the other hand, pigs are also pretty smart cookies and are commonly thought to be smarter than dogs. Despite this, Australians have no problem with putting some pork on their fork, but cry foul at the thought of whale in their entrails (big shout out to rhymezone for that one).
There are some admittedly uncomfortable differences in the killing methods of a pig, cow and whale. Says Hansen: “there is no humane way whatsoever to kill a whale; some take up to an hour to die”. Harpoons are still the most common killing method despite this being shown to inflict an immense amount of pain and suffering on the animal. That said, calves raised for veal hardly have a whale of a time either.
Killing whales also has a detrimental run-on effect to the rest of the ecosystem. “The reality is that whales are far more valuable to us alive in our oceans as they play a vital role in the health of our oceans,” says Hansen. He says they create “abundant fisheries and ensuring a healthy marine ecosystem”. But pro-whaler Flannery says there are far bigger issues than whaling that are affecting our oceans, including the declining numbers of krill and small crustaceans due to overfishing and rising sea temperatures. These tiny creatures aren’t as cute, huge or intelligent as orcas or dolphins, but they’re entirely essential to our food chain… and most whales’ diets.
Beef with whale sashimi
Another big factor is the whaling debate is cold hard cash. If you listen to the headlines, whaling is supposedly an industry fuelled primarily by greed and a national taste for a delicacy. Whaling is worth more than $2 billion a year, and is subsidized by governments in Norway and Japan. These subsidies aren’t exactly trillions though: Japan only receives an annual sum of $10 million. Whaling is obviously not as profitable as it seems at first glance. So what else is going on?
Enter politics. Australia leads the charge against Japan’s whaling on an international stage. We took an ongoing case to the International Court of Justice last year, which won our government countless political points in the process. Our media erupts each whaling season, and our news feeds fills with anti-Japanese rhetoric. What will surprise most outraged Australians is that Norway kills five times the number of whales than Japan does each year. Norway even sets a higher catch quota. And while Norway and Japan almost exclusively hunt the unthreatened minke whale, Iceland also kills large numbers of the extremely endangered blue, humpback and fin whales.
Australia utters barely a word against the actions of Norway and Iceland. So, why do we have more of a beef with whale sashimi than a European whale steak? The issue for Sea Shepherd Australia is obviously an issue of proximity. Greenpeace Australia doesn’t have enough resources to send a fleet to European waters, where the US arm of the environmental organisation has already got the issue covered anyways.
I assumed the issue for our Federal Government must be an issue of national sovereignty or a breach of our territorial waters or something. My mate Tara, who is studying law at the Australian National University, has a different take on the issue. “International law is all politics,” she says. “[Norway and Iceland] are European countries, and we want to look good in Europe.”
It’s worth considering if our government should open a dialogue around whaling with Japan considering our closer diplomatic ties with Asia than Europe. It’s also worth wondering if there’s perhaps a racial element to our vocal opposition as well. At the very least, it’s irresponsible and incongruent to not bat an eyelid over what’s going on in Norway and Iceland. Unlike Free Willy, whaling is an issue that’s far from black and white.
Ben Latham is a science student at The Australian National University.