Defending the Last Giants: Protecting Whales in a Changing World
For as long as humans have roamed the oceans, we have been drawn to life in the sea. Surely the first mariners must have been in awe of the first breath they saw fly into the sky from a giant dark beast rising up from the depths of the sea. I wonder if they were terrified by the sight of such massive creatures? Or did they fall enchanted by the great giants? I have wondered too what those first great whales must have thought of the strange floating objects carrying people by the wind. Were they apprehensive of the ships? Were they curious to meet such strangers? Our relationship to life in oceans has been complex. Even more so has been our history with whales and dolphins. A relationship surrounded by mystery and fascination, relentless pursuit and a growing concern to protect these large, sentient creatures, which comprise the largest animals to have ever lived on earth.
Our early understanding of the oceans has come largely from what we have been able to take from them. Whales have been no exception. For centuries, indigenous groups have been hunting whales for meat, bones, blubber, and culture. But it was during the late eighteenth and early ninetieth century that commercial whaling reached its peak, when more whales were killed than at any other time in human history. Whale populations declined drastically and as commercial whaling continued, numerous great whale species came to the brink of extinction. In the 1940s several countries came together to form the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in an effort to prevent the overhunting of whales, and a global moratorium on whaling was called for twenty years later due to their continuing population declines.
Commercial whaling is banned under a global moratorium, but Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to hunt and kill whales. When the moratorium was established in 1986, Norway and Iceland refused to comply and continued whaling under an objection to the treaty, while Japan continues whaling by claiming it is for “scientific research”, which has been controversial. In 2014, the International Court of Justice found Japan to be in violation of the International Convention on the regulation of whaling and ordered Japan to end its whaling activities. A year later, Japan’s fleets returned to Antarctica to continue whaling. Although each country has its own quotas on whales to catch, recent testing has shown that they are also catching endangered species like blue whales, fin whales, and sei whales. Since the ban, over fifty thousand whales have been killed, even though the demand for whale meat has been decreasing around the world and whaling operations are uneconomical without multimillion-dollar government subsidies.
In Japan, the majority of the population today does not eat whale meat and the practice is largely a remnant of older generations growing up a post World War II era, when other sources of protein were scarce. At one point, whale meat was the largest source of food for the country, but times have changed since then. Similarly, populations in Norway and Iceland also consume very little to no whale meat as part of their diet, with the majority being served to tourists. On top of this, whale meat often contains high levels of toxins, such as pesticides, mercury, and toxic flame-retardants known as PBDEs, and exposure to toxins can be especially dangerous to young children and pregnant mothers. Due to the low global demand for whale meat, huge amounts are placed in long-term storage facilities and whale meat stockpiles in all three countries have hit record highs in recent years. So few people are consuming whale meat that it’s ending up in luxury pet foods in Japan and feed for animals on fur farms in Norway. To think we are taking the mightiest and endangered animals on our planet and turning them into pet food shocks and saddens me.
So why do Japan, Norway and Iceland continue whaling? The answer seems to lie within a web of cultural identity, politics, and nationality. Cultures relying on small-scale whaling have existed for centuries in certain places, and people may feel connected to these longstanding traditions, even if the practice is no longer a necessity for survival. As for politics, in the case of Japan the whaling industry is closely tied to the government and part of political bureaucracy. But a major reason may come from the notion that nations do not want to be told by foreigners what they can and cannot do, and in many ways whaling activities may be linked to national pride.
Ship strikes, noise, and fishing entanglement
Unfortunately, there are many more growing threats to the great whales of our oceans than just whaling. The oceans are very a different place than they used to be. As our human populations have expanded, we have added increasing pressures to the ocean. From ship strikes and noise pollution to entanglement in fishing gear and bycatch, and the cumulative effects of climate change, whales must face and survive against many new challenges we have added to their world.
Today, shipping across the oceans accounts for over ninety percent of the global trade, and in the last twenty years the number of ships on the ocean has grown forty times. As vessel traffic grows worldwide, so does the risk for collisions with whales. Ships strikes are now the leading cause of death for whales around the world. Of the reported collisions with whales, the majority of are injured or killed, and many more strikes go undetected. With boat traffic also comes boat noise. Ocean noise pollution is another major growing threat to these majestic creatures, whose primary sense of sound is critical for communicating, foraging, and navigating in their underwater world. Though there are efforts underway to reduce the number of ship strikes, much more needs to be done to ensure that whales have a safe, quiet passage to critical feeding and breeding grounds so their populations can truly recover.
During whales migrations to feed and breed, they can come into contact with fishing vessels, or lost or abandoned fishing gear and become entangled. Ropes and nets can easily knot around whale’s tale flukes and while some animals can drag the equipment around for weeks or months, others succumb to the weight of the nets and die from exhaustion and drowning. Whales or dolphins that are accidentally caught during fishing operations are considered bycatch. It is a true loss for all those involved: a tragedy for such magnificent animals to die in such a terrible way, and a costly waste of resources for fishermen. To protect whales from entanglement, we must ensure that the seafood we choose to eat does not come from fisheries with high bycatch. As consumers of seafood, we can demand that our fish is bycatch free to help protect whales and dolphins in the oceans.
A future for whales
Since we stopped hunting whales on a global scale, many populations have been slowly making a comeback, but their path to recovery is scattered with obstacles. On top of these more tangible human threats, climate change will continue to warm the oceans and atmosphere. Whales may face risks from food sources moving or even disappearing with changing ocean conditions, and may face new challenges from opening shipping lanes across the Arctic and elsewhere. One thing that remains is that whales are valuable to the world in many ways. They are important ecologically, but they are also a huge source of revenue for economies that rely on tourism in many parts of the world.
Whales are much more valuable alive. The global whale watching industry is estimated at 2.1 billion dollars a year, a huge economic contribution to coastal communities. The recovery of whales globally can help enhance local economies around the world by creating environmentally friendly whale watching operations. Care must be taken to ensure that these activities do not greatly disturb these animals during critical feeding and breeding times. By valuing whales as living, breathing, majestic creatures on our planet, we can help people around the world while protecting the great whales of our earth. I believe we should end all commercial whaling around the world, and come together to recognize the magnificence and value of these gentle giants of the sea.
Please read my letter to the Prime Minister of Japan.
President, Ocean Futures Society
with Jaclyn Mandoske