Whales: friends or food?

There’s a scene in “Finding Nemo” at the shark support group where all the shark repeat, “Fish are friends, not food.” Of course, before long the sharks are chasing our plump delicious fishy heroes with lethal intent. This is the first thing that came to mind when I heard that the Japanese are planning to go whaling for humpbacks for the first time since 1963. My first reaction was, “Not the friendly humpbacks!” and my second was, “Wow, I HAVE been indoctrinated into anthropomophizing whales. Now, is a sustainable harvest possible? And why is international whaling law so broken, anyway?”

My first reaction is pretty standard for an American. We tend to think of whales as spectacular, intelligent, and precious. But Norwegians like nothing better than to pop a minke steak on the bbq, and the Japanese have a cultural connection to eating whale meat (even though few actual Japanese seem to want to.) So assuming that everyone’s interested in having whales around for the future, what is the most useful attitude?
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) which governs whaling is a deeply broken institution. The anti-whaling countries (US, western Europe) and the whaling countries (Japan, Norway, and Iceland) both recruit neutral, developing countries to their side with bribes of international aid. And membership in the IWC is voluntary anyway – Norway is not part of the treaty and openly conducts commercial whaling, while Japan and Iceland have “scientific whaling” that is transparently commercial.

Norway is unwilling to give up whaling, what with whale steaks being a tasty summer treat, but they are willing to comply with strict quotas. Meanwhile, Japan’s whaling farce is outside any international scientific guidance, and they pretty much do what they want. Since it’s pretty certain that some species of whale can sustain a low level of harvest (minkes, for example), wouldn’t it be better to regulate that harvest rather than refusing to even engage in debate? Maybe that international standard would include a strict ban on humpback whaling, since they are more threatened that other types of whales, and maybe it wouldn’t. But at least it would set a standard instead of continuing the scientific whaling farce.

The reason that this hasn’t happened already is because (and I can’t believe I’m saying this with a straight face) an actual powerful environmental lobby in the US. Arguing in favor of whaling means that you’re a cold-hearted asshole. Jennifer Jacquet over at Shifting Baselines takes this point of view in a post about animal rights:

I have watched friends become scientists and some of them have turned to talking coolly about how the numbers support a “sustainable harvest” of whales and seal pups (or whichever wild animal one might choose). They have been converted to the cult of the cerebral and utilitarian. But lots of humanity has not. As Sheril said, nature is not a numbers game alone.

No, nature isn’t a numbers game alone, but nor should the emotions of the West necessarily trump the numbers. The reality is that some people want to eat whales, both for taste and cultural reasons. Unless you can convince people that their cultural traditions are Bad and Wrong (which tends to be frowned upon these days in leftist circles), I think we’d be better off taking the cold, heartless scientific route of determining a sustainable level of harvest and working WITH the whaling countries to stick to it. This ridiculous scientific whaling sham has got to end – it doesn’t help create useful international treaties, it doesn’t help with scientific management of natural resources, and it especially doesn’t help the whales.


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