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No science and no respect in Australia's anti-whaling campaign

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Thursday, 7 July 2005


Why is it that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) condones the slaughter of rare whales by indigenous peoples using what are arguable inhumane traditional methods, while ruling against the commercial harvest of more common species by more humane methods?

“Aboriginal subsistence whaling,” as it is called, is currently permitted by the IWC for Denmark (fin and minke whales), the Russian Federation (grey and bowhead whales), St Vincent and the Grenadines (humpback whales) and the USA (bowhead and grey whales). A key condition is that meat and other products from the slaughter must not be sold.

In the lead up to the recent IWC meeting in Ulsan, South Korea, there was no discussion about the quota the Grenadines have in the Caribbean to kill humpback whales even though this species is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable to extinction.

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The harvest of smaller species belonging to the suborder Odontoceti (for example, dolphins and pilot whales) is not regulated by the IWC and not discussed. This includes, for example, the slaughter of long-finned pilot whales by Danish Farosese fishermen by driving the whales close to the shore, then weighing the animals down with ropes attached to stones. The whales are then stabbed in the blubber with a sharp hook, called a gaff, before being pulled to shore.

In the lead up to the meeting in Ulsan, Australia’s Environment Minister, Ian Campbell, travelled the world railing against the slaughter of whales with a complete focus on Norwegian and Japanese whalers. He called for an end to commercial whaling and suggested the practice of killing whales with grenades was barbaric. He was quoted in The Australian suggesting, "Anyone who sees a giant and highly-intelligent creature getting harpooned - having a grenade set off inside its head or inside its stomach and if it doesn't get killed within 20 or 30 minutes they stick an electronic lance in it - if somebody doesn't get emotional about that there's something wrong with them". In the same article he was reportedly, “shocked and saddened by recently broadcast images of whale-cooking classes in Japan”.

I don’t like the idea of killing whales and I am always outraged when science is wrongly invoked to justify politics - as Japan does to justify the continual harvest of minke whales for essentially cultural reasons. But I am just as appalled by the bullying and emotive approach taken by the Australian Government.

Norwegian whalers have a long cultural tradition of killing, eating and selling whale products. The Norwegians argue that minke whaling is an environmentally-sound way of producing food on the basis the harvest accords with the following principles:

  1. it is based on scientific advice supported by the best available knowledge;
  2. decisions are based on the precautionary principle. This means that uncertainty about biological data must result in a cautious level of harvesting, and any exploitation must allow a reasonable margin of safety;
  3. all harvesting is followed up by monitoring; and
  4. effective control systems are implemented to ensure compliance with regulatory decisions.

The Norwegian Government has demonstrated that its harvest of minke whales is consistent with these principles. Norway suspended commercial whaling in 1987. However, after the IWC's Scientific Committee accepted 86,700 animals as the best estimate of the northeast Atlantic minke whale population in 1992, Norway resumed commercial whaling in defiance of the IWC. Populations of minke whales in this region are now estimated at 112,000.

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Whales are harvested according to a strict quota system based on an understanding of population numbers and dynamics. The 2005 season allows Norwegian whalers 796 minke whales - up from last year's 670. The whalers must operate in accordance with strict protocols for killing whales which are deemed humane. Whales are said to die instantly when struck by a harpoon tipped with the grenade.

Greenpeace is the largest environmental organisation in Australia and made its name by opposing commercial whaling. In an insightful review (pdf file 46KB) of Greenpeace's early years, Fred Pearce has written, "Greenpeace was far from being the first green group to oppose whaling. But it was the first green group to ignore the scientific arguments about whale reproduction rates, population dynamics, and how large a sustainable cull might be, in favour of an undiluted ethical argument: save the whale." The media war was effectively reduced to the simple issue of whether or not "whales are good".

As a consequence of this campaigning have many Westerners, to quote Ron Brunton writing in The Courier-Mail in 2001, “come to venerate cetaceans, the zoological order which comprises the 80 or so species of whales, dolphins and porpoises”? It is not unusual for cultures to venerate particular animals. Orthodox Hindus venerate cows, believing them to possess divine qualities. But is this a useful basis from which to develop national and international environmental policies for the conservation of species?

Dugongs, like whales, are long lived marine mammals. They feed on sea grass in northern Australian waters and are slow breeders, suckling a single calf for over 18 months.

Two papers published last year in the British Journal Animal Conservation indicate that dugong populations in the Torres Strait are grossly over-fished. The Australian Government accepts that about 1,000 dugongs are killed each year by indigenous communities and that this is probably ten times the estimated sustainable harvest.

I respect the rights of indigenous Australians to hunt dugongs and I respect the right of Norwegians and Japanese to hunt whales and trade the products of their slaughter. But the activity must be sustainable. It would seem that in this regard the Australian, and perhaps also the Japanese, governments could learn from the reasoned and scientific approach taken by the Norwegians.

The same four principles could be applied to the harvest of dugongs in Australian waters under a strict quota system. The issue of Aboriginal subsistence whaling needs to be acknowledged and discussed. Australian Aboriginals and Danish Farosese fisherman may kill the animal with a traditional weapon, but they do this from motorised boats. And perhaps it is time Australians started to acknowledge that our aversion to whaling is cultural, based on a new-found love of whales, and that we simply don’t want to apply reason or science here.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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