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Save the whales?

Should whales be treated differently from other non-human animals? Should whaling continue to be restricted or should controlled harvesting, beyond levels of ‘scientific whaling’ now practiced by Japan and Norway, be allowed? To be frank I don’t want to see any whales killed but, if pressed, my (non-vegetarian) arguments for this position fray at the edges.

There are claims that there is currently a surplus of whale meat in Japan and that it is currently being turned into dog food – a claim rejected by the Japanese. The role of whale meat as a significant Japanese food has even been questioned. As Masako Fukui in The Australian remarks:

‘…traditional whaling seems to reside in that realm of mythical reality that characterizes so much of what’s called tradition in Japan. After all, whale consumption took off in Japan only after World War II, when US general Douglas
MacArthur encouraged whale consumption to supplement Japanese protein intake. By the time of the moratorium in the 1980s, beef and other sources of protein were being consumed in the Japanese diet. So when the ban began in 1986, fewer than 1000 jobs were lost in the whaling industry’.

There are even moves to distribute whale meat to Japanese school children to reactivate traditional demands for it.

Finally, there are claims that whale killing is cruel because whales die an agonizing death – this argument in itself will drive endeavors to come up with an efficient means of dispatching whales.

The argument favoring harvesting seems to be that the Japanese regard whales just as large animals that can be harvested for their protein and fat. Others regard whales as charismatic megafauna that should be protected. This is an ambiguous claim in terms of brain size though whales are indeed charismatic social animals .

Japan and the pro-whaling nations seem today to have wrested control of the International Whaling Commission from those opposed to whaling setting the stage for a resumption of commercial whaling from next year – the ban on commercial whaling has been overturned by a small majority though this needs to be agreed to by 75% of the 70 delegates when the IWC meets next year to have effect. The Japanese will presumably attempt to make voting at the IWC secret and to eliminate the attendance at IWC meetings of conservation groups as observers. This might swing the vote to resumption of whaling as the ‘shame factor’ is eliminated from voting in favor of whaling.

Whales are a global common property resource and, on this basis, John Quiggin’s suggestion that the case for whaling should be resolved by a vote among nations is a sound one. Since most Australians oppose whaling – 93% disapprove of eating whale meat – the Australian Government is correct to pursue strong opposition to whaling via the IWC. (By the way since only 37% of Japanese approve of eating whale meat the Japanese Government too should reconsider their position).

One interesting proposal that won’t go over well with whale kill supporters is to create a quota of whale harvesting rights that could be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Then those who would prefer to see whales swim free would be able to outbid the few remaining humans who want to kill and eat whales. This won’t work because the Japanese see whale populations as residing at the top of the food chain – they not only have to be killed off for food but also to protect fish stocks. This claim is widely rejected by fishery experts (here and here) – dwindling fish stocks are due to over-fishing not to increasing whale populations – but this false claim is unlikely to dent the enthusiasm of the Japanese for killing these magnificent animals. They seem just as hell-bent on their mission as I am in opposing their intentions.

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