Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Tough Time to be a Whale

Things are about to change, and not for the better, on the whaling front. At least, from the perspective of the whales.

The International Whaling Commission is about to meet, and it looks as though the proponents of whaling will perhaps attain a majority for the first time in quite a while (from the AP story):
Pro-whaling nations are expected to take control of the International Whaling Commission this week, giving them a majority of seats on the panel for the first time since it banned commercial hunting 20 years ago.
As it turns out, there are only three countries that do any appreciable whaling anymore. Norway flaunts the international ban on commercial whaling. Japan and Iceland harvest whales under the allowance for "scientific research." It is unclear to me just what scientific value is gained by killing whales. Or at least by killing more than a few. What is clear is that between 2,000 and 3,000 whales were killed last year, that we know of. And what becomes of the whale carcasses after this "research"? They are sold. For food.

You see, some people like to eat whale meat. Or at least, some people are trying to promote the eating of whale meat. Oddly enough, there is a glut of whale meat, at least in Japan. Yet Japan is the country pressing the hardest (and recruiting allies) to allow more whaling.

So Japan has reintroduced whale meat, in the form of whale burgers and other dishes, into the school diet, trying to cultivate a taste for whale meat in the young. Meanwhile, the price of whale has plummeted as surplus meat goes unwanted.

The circularity of the argument is rather bizarre: They claim to need to kill more whales to meet demand, yet the meat from existing "research" exceeds current demand.

I have a particular interest in whales. In addition to a lifelong fondness for marine mammals of all sorts, I had the opportunity last summer to swim with humpback whales in the Kingdom of Tonga. We went to Tonga as part of an expedition with the Imaging Foundation, with the goal of documenting the state of Tonga's humpback whales for a website we created.

Swimming with whales is amazing, to say the least. They are huge, yet gentle, and display grace and curiosity that is truly inspiring. And Tonga has found a way to take advantage of that. The king of Tonga banned all hunting of whales in Tongan waters in 1978. He reasoned that live whales would bring people to Tonga and boost the economy. So far, he seems to be correct, and the whale population is starting to recover.

Unfortunately, although the whales are protected while in Tonga, they are migratory, and can easily be killed while they travel to and from their summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic.

Killing whales might have made sense at one time in history, but currently, there is no significant market for whale products, and the number killed for "research" far exceeds the amount that can reasonably be justified on that basis.

Looks like it might be time to dust off the "Save the Whales" bumper stickers and t-shirts.

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