Editorial Comment

  1. Sustainable Whaling: Fishery or Fallacy?
  2. Whaling talks could backfire on New Zealand
  3. Whaling compromise is not based on conservation

Sustainable Whaling: Fishery or Fallacy?

C. George Muller wrote the following editorial on whaling and fisheries as a guest expert for the Nelson Mail. Published on 30 Jun 07.

The recent focus on fishing and the environment raises questions over whether whaling should be considered ‘fishing’, or ended completely.

Southern Hemisphere whaling is perpetrated by Japan. This summer they will target 935 minke whales, plus endangered species including 50 fin whales and 50 humpbacks – killing within the Whale Sanctuary, and New Zealand’s and Australia’s Antarctic Territories.
Japan claims the hunt is for research, but as a scientist I find such claims offensive and insulting to my profession. Studying whales does not require killing them. DNA analysis and photo-identification can tell far more than a dead whale. How would our world-renowned kakapo recovery programme fare if New Zealand scientists followed whalers’ example?
Despite 20 years and 10,000 dead whales Japan’s so-called research has published no worthwhile findings yet. ‘Scientific’ whaling is merely a cynical ploy to exploit a loophole in the Moratorium; the motive obvious with the meat sold in Japanese markets and high-priced restaurants.
So what’s wrong with that? Why not allow sustainable commercial hunting, particularly if Japan’s culture includes eating whalemeat as they claim?

Firstly, Japanese whaling is about money and politics, not culture. Some Inuit tribes are permitted a small cultural hunt, but large-scale whaling for profit is not ‘subsistence whaling’. Most Japanese consumption of whales began recently during post-WWII food shortages; but today under 1% regularly eat whalemeat. It definitely isn’t traditional to send an industrial whaling fleet 10,000km to the other side of the world.
Japan claims criticism of whaling is “cultural imperialism” from Western nations who don’t see whales as food. However, unlike farmed livestock, whales are endangered. Hence the International Whaling Commission (IWC)’s 1986 moratorium banning commercial whaling. The sale of endangered wildlife is also outlawed by the CITES convention. It is illegal to sell tiger skins, rhino horn, elephant ivory – and whalemeat. These restrictions are necessary to protect whale species driven to commercial extinction by past hunting. Some, like blue whales, were reduced to just a few hundred animals in the entire Southern Hemisphere, and may never recover despite over 40 years of protection.

More importantly, sustainable hunting is a theory not a guarantee, and attempting it runs a real risk of getting it wrong again – particularly with profits involved. We simply don’t have enough data on whale populations to set realistic quotas without risking further depletion.
Even relatively-common minke whales are considered “conservation-dependent”, meaning they could be within 5 years of decline if pressures change – and whaling is just one of many. Global warming, food depletion, ship strikes, pollution, underwater noise, and entanglement in fishing gear are all increasing.
Minkes are the smallest Great Whales, and remain comparatively numerous purely because they were not targeted until recently. Yet a perceived abundance is no justification to repeat past mistakes.
Unlike regular fisheries (many of which are already over-exploited), whales are long-lived, slow-growing mammals and reproduce too slowly to withstand significant hunting pressure. The serial depletion of one stock after another clearly demonstrates past whaling was unsustainable.
Additionally, whale populations cannot be treated like a big smorgasbord. Only around 2000 humpbacks travel through New Zealand waters, and just a few hundred to Pacific nations. In the Antarctic hunting grounds these small sub-populations are indistinguishable, but easily wiped out – and once gone will not be replaced by transmigration from elsewhere.

Whale-watching is already worth over $120million annually to our economy, and is the mainstay of tourism areas like Kaikoura. A distant country claiming killing rights ignores rights of local Pacific communities to engage in truly sustainable use. After all, you can watch a whale many times, but can kill it only once!

In the 21st century I believe we must consign outdated attitudes to history. A modern, responsible society cannot justify a short-sighted and unsustainable approach towards the environment. Endangered species need all the protection we can offer, however belated. We cannot blithely continue “how we’ve always done things” without risking irreparable consequences.

C. George Muller is a New Zealand marine biologist and author of Echoes in the Blue; an award-winning factual “eco-thriller” novel about whaling.

Whaling talks could backfire on New Zealand

C. George Muller wrote the following editorial on whaling and the results of the 2007 IWC meeting as a guest expert for the New Zealand Herald. Published on 12 Jun 07.

Despite the recent International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting, not much has changed – whales still need saving.

At this year’s IWC meeting Japan sought dispensation for coastal communities to hunt whales on cultural grounds, but the commission rightly voted that whaling for profit is not subsistence whaling.
Unlike Inuit tribes who depend on whales for survival, Japan doesn’t. Nor does it have a long history of eating whalemeat, with most consumption beginning during post-WWII food shortages.

Japan has threatened to quit the IWC if it doesn’t get its way, but staying is likely in its best interests. The IWC’s origins as a whaling organisation provide lax rules for conservation, and no enforcement capability. Hence the reason Japan can exploit a loophole to hunt endangered species under the guise of ‘scientific’ research, with meat still sold in Japanese restaurants and fish markets.

‘Scientific’ whaling is not science. It uses flawed methodology and is biased towards catching more whales. The hunt’s expanding scale reveals it as a cynical attempt to return to commercial whaling by deception. With a single dead Minke whale worth over US$100,000 the motivation is obvious.
The bottom line is that lethal research is not required to study whales. DNA analysis and photo-identification can tell far more about populations than a dead whale.
Despite 20 years and over 10,000 dead whales Japanese ‘researchers’ have discovered little, with few published findings in reputable science journals.

Japan maintains the controversy is about “cultural imperialism” and the West imposing its food culture on them. However, this ignores the fact that cows and sheep are in no danger of extinction, and that humane standards are required in any Western abattoir – standards non-existent when harpooned whales routinely suffer for up to an hour before dying.

Japan claims sustainable whaling is possible, yet the theory is extremely difficult to get right. It requires accurate knowledge of whale stocks, and biology on lifespan, growth, and reproduction. Unfortunately much of this remains unknown since whales are difficult to study in their environment, making it extremely reckless to continue killing them without knowing the long-term effects.
A recent increase of humpbacks around New Zealand and Australia is no justification to restart the slaughter. Virtually all large whale species are still considered depleted to some extent and the lack of recovery evident after 40 years of protection implies some species, like blue whales, may never recover.

Whaling cannot be managed like a regular fishery, many of which are already over-exploited. Even relatively-common Minke whales are considered “conservation-dependent”, meaning they could be within five years of decline if threats increase – and whaling is just one of many. As long-lived mammals, whales reproduce too slowly to withstand any significant hunting pressure. The results of past whaling offer clear evidence it wasn’t sustainable, with species after species driven to commercial extinction.

The Antarctic whales are Southern Hemisphere populations with no connection to Japan whatsoever. Claiming a right to hunt these whales ignores the rights of local countries to conduct whale-watching – where a live whale continually generates income throughout its life.
Marine mammal tourism is worth over $120m annually to our economy, and is the mainstay of small tourist towns like Kaikoura. It is also a significant money-earner for Australia (A$260m), and many developing nations in the Pacific (US$21m).

With promises of foreign aid Japan has bought voting support from many third world nations in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. Many have no history of whaling, and some, like Laos and Mongolia, don’t even have a coastline.
Overturning the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling would require a ¾ majority, however with a simple majority last year Japan managed to win a symbolic vote labelling the moratorium “unnecessary”.
This year 40 countries passed a resolution condemning Japan’s ‘scientific’ whaling – providing the strongest criticism yet, and a clear indication of world opinion on whaling.
However, Japan is likely to ignore it and continue regardless, just as it has ignored numerous IWC resolutions, diplomatic protests, and criticism from international scientists over the past two decades.

What can be done?
A legal challenge is risky. Defeat is likely since the Southern Ocean is considered ‘International Waters’, offering Japan a virtually iron-clad mandate to continue.
Similarly fraught is Australia’s plan to send warships to monitor whalers. Japan refuses to acknowledge New Zealand and Australia’s Antarctic territories, leaving Navy vessels open to allegations of piracy or worse if attempting to inspect or detain a whaling ship.

Our government’s willingness to negotiate for the lives of the 50 humpbacks Japan plans to kill this summer could also backfire. Focusing on one particular species plays right into whalers’ arguments we treat them as “special” animals. Furthermore, it leaves no room to move when negotiating for other species such as the 50 endangered fin whales or nearly 1000 Minkes also targeted.
In making a deal to safeguard only humpbacks our government would fail to achieve anything concrete. The same number of whales will likely still be killed this summer as in the past, except we would “owe” Japan for their apparent goodwill gesture in making a special concession for us. Those familiar with Japan’s history at the IWC cannot help wondering if that was their aim all along when announcing plans to kill humpbacks.
The message is simple though. The government must stand firm in its resolution to end all whaling. If the door is re-opened there will be no closing it again.

C. George Muller is a New Zealand marine biologist and author of Echoes in the Blue; an award-winning factual “eco-thriller” about whaling.

Whaling compromise is not based on conservation

C. George Muller wrote the following editorial as a guest expert for the New Zealand Herald. It is in response to the New Zealand government's intent to broker a deal allowing commercial whaling to resume for the first time since the 1986 Moratorium, in exchange for closing the scientific whaling loophole currently exploited by Japan.

Published on 13 Apr 2010. See here for published article

Recent discussions have focused on seeking a diplomatic solution to whaling, as though a nice cosy face-saving “win-win” scenario would somehow leave all sides happy. Unfortunately, science does not merge well with politics. While compromises may be a nice ideal for diplomats and politicians, they seldom work for safeguarding endangered species.

Commercial whaling violates numerous international conservation treaties including the Antarctic Treaty, CCAMLR, and CITES. Just as we need to prohibit trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn, and tiger parts, we also need to prohibit trade in whalemeat. Allowing one exception sabotages the whole process, and opens the door to future exploitation of any and all endangered species. Trade-offs and concessions allowing commercial whaling will only create and fuel demand for whalemeat. Attaching a dollar value and providing a ready market for the sale of endangered species has been shown to simply create more demand and its inevitable associations; poaching and black-marketeering – as we see with elephant ivory, and have already seen with pirate whalers. People are always willing to pay money for endangered wildlife. Human history is littered with acts of thoughtlessness, selfishness and greed. The list of human-caused extinctions is impressive, even within recent history.

Whalers have yet to prove that sustainably harvesting whales is possible. Hence despite over 20 years of presenting their pseudo-science and calling for a return to commercial whaling it has been rejected by the IWC. Even if strict rules were introduced, there is no guarantee they will work. Fisheries management is an extremely inexact science, as is demonstrated by the fact that over 80% of fisheries worldwide are already overfished. It is too easy to set an overly-generous quota and deplete the stock – particularly when that “fishery” targets long-lived, slow-growing and slow-reproducing mammals, not fish. “Sustainable whaling” is a paper theory, not a proven concept. The proposed management techniques are based on inadequate knowledge of populations and basic biology, and any real-world monitoring in distant whaling grounds would be difficult and expensive, inevitably relying on trusting the fox to manage the henhouse.

Sadly, “fisheries management” invariably becomes a conflict between short-term profit at the expense of long-term conservation of the population. Fisheries worldwide have been characterised by serial depletion of stocks and species, and whaling was no exception. It is also true that the rarer something gets the more money it is worth. Coincidentally, Japan illustrates this concept quite aptly as they pursue the last of the Southern Bluefin tuna to extinction. Cynical observers have recognised the pattern already; Japan is reluctant to accept controls on any “fishery” in case that sets a precedent. The trouble is their fishing interests – and associated environmental effects – commonly involve territorial waters other than their own. The problem for enforcement is it is too easy to bend or ignore the rules at sea where no one can see what you are up to. Whalers have demonstrated they couldn’t be trusted to manage commercial whaling that was anywhere near sustainable in the past. Japanese whalers’ cynical manipulation of the “scientific whaling” loophole clearly demonstrates their contempt for the rules now, and their targeting of pregnant females and endangered species shows their interest in conservation is non-existent. Trusting them to undertake future commercial whaling according to arbitrary rules and quotas would be an enormous gamble. If we reopen the door to commercial whaling it will be extremely difficult to shut again.

A commonly bandied defence of whaling is that it constitutes Japanese “culture”. This deliberately ignores the fact that large-scale consumption of whalemeat in Japan began only after WWII, and it was never a tradition to send a factory fleet to the other side of the world! An often repeated argument is that Hindus revere cows but don’t tell us not to eat them. This is deliberately obfuscating because the situation cannot be compared. The cows consumed in New Zealand:

  1. are in no danger of going extinct
  2. are killed instantaneously and humanely in approved slaughterhouses
  3. are not Indian cows, nor killed anywhere near Indian territory!

Whaling fails on all counts. These are migratory species which Japan has no claim to kill, cultural or otherwise. Whaling is not a question of culture, but greed. The argument about whaling is not about the West telling Japanese what they shouldn’t eat. The point often lost amongst all the rhetoric is simple biology; it is a bad idea to KILL and SELL endangered species. If some Japanese people want to EAT whales there are still thousands of tonnes of unsold meat stored in Japanese warehouses.

“Culture” is not an excuse for knowingly committing wrong. A truly great culture is one that allows itself to mature and change, rather than steadfastly clinging to the bad old way of doing things, just because “that’s the way it has always been done”.

Japan is clearly in this for the long haul. It is obvious that all their negotiations and back-door deals at the IWC, and the focus of their whaling “research” itself is directed towards nothing less than a full-scale return to commercial whaling. Unfortunately, from a diplomatic point of view we have already shot ourselves in the foot. Regardless of the outcome of these discussions New Zealand has just demonstrated a weakening in resolve which will only strengthen whalers’ determination to stay their course.

C. George Muller is a New Zealand marine biologist and author of Echoes in the Blue; an award-winning factual “eco-thriller” about whaling.