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Whaling in Antarctica – a tale of slaughter
By Ken Franklin

Herman Melville made the hunt for Moby Dick sound like a noble pitting of man’s wits against a ferocious leviathan of the sea. But the history of man’s killing of these giant creatures is a bloody tale of persecution, greed, and stupidity.

Whaling has been going on for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until about 100 years ago that the first whaling station was established in Antarctica. At first, whaling there took a few hundreds of whales a year. But within a decade, advances in shipbuilding and the invention of the harpoon cannon drove the death toll into the thousands. By the mid 1920s, the arrival of British and Norwegian factory ships pushed the slaughter still higher.

And by the mid 1930s, the waters surrounding the Antarctic had become an international whale-killing field. Whaling fleets from the U.K., the U.S., Argentina, Denmark, Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, Russia, and Germany hunted with explosive harpoons and sent whale populations plummeting. Many species have been pushed toward the brink of extinction. Blue whales once numbered about 275,000; there are now fewer than 5,000 remaining.

During the last 2 centuries, humpback whales have been hunted intensively, especially in the southern hemisphere, where it is estimated that populations were reduced to a few percent of their pre-exploitation abundance (Chapman 1974). Based on catch records corrected for illegal Soviet whaling, a total of more than 200,000 humpback whales were killed from 1904 to 1980 (Clapham & Baker 2002).

In 1946, the International Whaling Commission recognized that “…it is essential to protect all species from over-fishing.” Nevertheless, the industry had too much power for any meaningful restrictions until 1965, when the IWC banned the catching of blue whales in the Antarctic. Some whalers moved to smaller species; others cheated. The Russian whaling fleet, according to Greenpeace, caught more than 90,000 whales illegally in the Antarctic between 1965 and the late 1970s.

Some countries stopped whaling in the Antarctic, but Russia, Japan, and other countries continued the hunt. Japan gets around whaling limits by calling its catch “scientific.” A fire in the Japanese whaling-factory ship Nisshin Maru put an early end to Japan’s 2007 Antarctic whaling hunt. But that ship will likely be repaired, probably in time to begin whaling in the North Pacific later this year. This, in spite of almost universal condemnation of Japan’s “scientific” whale slaughter.

Japan takes a deadly toll on the world’s whale population. According to the Australian government, Japan killed more than 6,500 Antarctic minke whales during the 18 years it was conducting “research” on the whales, though there are ample non-lethal methods for learning the same things. Japan justifies its continuing depletion of these magnificent cetaceans on economic grounds, though few Japanese have a taste for whale meat (they prefer McDonald’s these days), and much of the butchered flesh from Japanese hunts winds up being stored in freezers as there is insufficient market demand.

Japan has few allies in its whaling position, but manages to secure votes in the International Whaling Commission by the payment of quid-pro-quo financial aid (totaling nearly half a billion U.S. dollars) to developing Caribbean countries including Grenada, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and the Solomon Islands.

Moral issues aside, Japan’s whaling may be in violation of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, to which Japan is a signatory. Article II of the Convention requires that “Any harvesting and associated activities [in the Antarctic must prevent]…decrease in the size of any harvested population to levels below those which ensure its stable recruitment…[and] prevention of changes…in the marine ecosystem which are not potentially reversible over two or three decades…”

One of the justifications Japan and other whaling nations cite to justify the hunt is that “whales eat too many fish” and must be controlled as part of marine ecosystem management. This is simply untrue. Many whales don’t eat fish at all; they eat krill. Of the thousands of whales cut open between 1987 and 2005, the overwhelming majority had not a single fish in their stomachs. A total of less than 300 pounds of fish was found in all the whales in all those years of “research”.

Consumers can make a difference. Environmentalist pressure recently caused Nissui, the parent company of Gorton’s Seafood and New Zealand-based Sealord, to withdraw its support for the whaling activities of its corporate cousin, Kyodo Senpaku. Nissui has announced that it will sell its shares in Kyodo, and end its involvement in the whaling business.

In Iceland, the government decision to resume whaling last year, in spite of an international moratorium, precipitated a boycott by would-be whale-watching tourists. Unless the boycott forces the government to change its mind, 30 minke whales and 9 fin whales could perish this year.

When the International Whaling Commission meets in May, Japan will try to use its influence to bring about an end the moratorium on commercial whaling. If the slaughter is to be stopped, it will take the concerted efforts of the powerful anti-whaling nations on the Commission: the U.S., Australia, the U.K., and Germany.  The eyes of the world will be watching.


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