Whales are one of the world’s most majestic and mysterious creatures, but they have long been targeted by hunters and poachers. Fortunately, in recent years, the demand for whale meat and other by-products has plummeted. While the scientific community is just learning how social and intelligent these animals are, the international community is failing to unite to protect these crucial marine mammals. Despite the fact that we no longer need whale oil or bones, humans are still slaughtering whales. Today, whales are highly vulnerable to killing and maiming, primarily at the hands (both directly and indirectly) of humans. With 2014 marking an already bloody year, it’s never been more important that the international community step up and demand united protection for whales.
Whaling, or the hunting of whales, has been practiced by numerous cultures for thousands of years, possibly dating from 6,000 B.C. People have relied on the meat, bones, and blubber of the whales for use as food, art, candles, margarine, and transmission fluid (through whale oil). Up until the 17th century, whaling was practiced on a small scale, with coastal cultures taking in whales as needed. But by the 18th and 19th centuries, the demand for whale goods rose, especially when whale oil became a key part in the industrial revolution. Technology and the means of capturing whales changed, causing massive population declines.
It is estimated that over 50,000 whales were being killed annually by the late 1930s. In 1946, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) formed to oversee and regulate whaling practices. In 1986, the IWC established the international ban on whaling, in an effort to conserve the remaining whale populations and to protect them from the cruel killing methods.
The means of killing whales, as described by Dr. Lillie, a physician on board a whaling vessel in the Antarctic in 1946, were grisly: “If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck into its stomach and being made to pull a butcher’s truck through the streets of London while it pours blood in the gutter, we shall have an idea of the present method of killing. The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream, the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it.”
These methods are still used today, and include the use of harpoons (explosive and nonexplosive), and high-powered rifles, typically used after the whales are chased down to the point of exhaustion.
Despite the international ban, over 37,200 whales have been killed for commercial sale since 1986. Japan, Norway, and Iceland are all able to hunt because of the 2006 Scientific Research permit. Under this loophole, whales can be killed for research purposes, but verification of purpose is difficult. The general scientific population has concluded that killing whales is not needed to conduct research. Fecal matter, shedded skin and blubber samples are all no-kill alternatives.
Since 2006, Iceland has ignored the international ban on whaling. For its 2014 three-month whaling season, Iceland has killed 137 endangered fin whales, three more from last year, and they plan on slaughtering 229 common minke whales. Iceland continues to cull whales, even though almost all of the whale meat sold remains uneaten, staying in freezers in Japan. The fin whale has been listed as an endangered species with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with whaling listed as the cause for the low populations.
Nearly 1,5000 km to the east, Norway has also undertaken a massive whaling streak this year. Norway has killed 729 common minke whales, a record number since the nation began defying the IWC ban in 1993. The director of the fishing firm Hopen Fisk, Åge Eriksen, has said, “We possess more meat than we can sell,” with some of the meat being sold to Japan, as most Norwegians opt out of eating the whale meat.
Japan, the third nation ignoring the ban on whaling, has been granted a Scientific Permit. However, the permit is approved by the nation itself (the Japanese government approves Japan’s request), so they are free from any international review, scrutiny, or scientific ruling. Earlier this year, the United Nations declared Japan’s Antarctic whaling as “unscientific,” and demanded that they put an end to the hunt. Despite this, Japan continues to whale in the Pacific. Their hunting season ended in July, with 115 whales killed, including 90 endangered sei whales.
Ignoring an international treaty is not unheard of. Many countries look out for their own national interests. While the United Nations and the IWC are the international enforcers of international treaties and agreements, it is ultimately up to each country to abide by the agreement. The framework to enforce international treaties needs a do-over, in order for greater compliance. However, nations are not concerned, as it is not in the interest of many governments to abide by international law.
The decline in population and continuance of whaling means taking some of the top members of the food chain out of marine ecosystems. Blue whales take in 40 million krill daily, ensuring a stable population of the the species. Sperm whale feces stimulate growth in phytoplankton, which in turn feeds fish. It is estimated that whale feces annually take in 400,000 tons of carbon from the air, via the phytoplankton. Even the bodies of whales are important. When a whale dies a natural death in the ocean, their body provides nourishment for bottom dwelling creatures, polar bears, and fish. Whaling has negative effects on a social level, as well. Whales are highly social creatures, with many species members of interconnected family groups. Taking even one whale may destabilize a pod or family, possibly stunting the growth of young whales. In addition, the thirteen million people who go whale watching, a two billion dollar industry, rely on these creatures to be healthy and whole.
Today, whales face many challenges: climate change, noise pollution, ship strikes, sonar, and fishing methods (trawling and nets). Whales do not need an added obstacle. Want to know what you can do to help whales and put an end to whaling? Know what you are eating, especially if in Japan, Norway, or Iceland. Many fish can be mislabeled, particularly in sushi. You can also visit http://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/whaling.asp and http://us.whales.org/issues/whaling to take more direct action.
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