Our oceans are home to an incredible array of animals, and one of the most charismatic groups are the whales. With the blue whale reaching lengths of 30.5m, sperm whales diving to depths of 2000m and grey whales migrating up to 20,000km a year, this is a highly diverse group with each species possessing unique characteristics, life-history traits and exhibiting distinct behaviours.
Blue whales are as long as three school buses!
So why is it that a creature with intelligence levels close to our own is hunted for its meat, oil and blubber? Why does whaling, an activity so abhorrent to numerous countries, still persist even though many species are listed as vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN Red list?
The issue of whaling recently resurfaced when reports came flooding in that Japan had slaughtered 333 minke whales, 122 of which were pregnant. Japan hunts whales under the guise of ‘scientific research’ and this has been the source of many public outcries and global conservation movements. Furthermore, Iceland has just set its annual quota with targets to achieve 191 kills this season... and they’re not the only nations to participate in the hunting of whales for commercial purposes.
But, what many people don’t seem to realise is that up until 1986, numerous nations participated in commercial whaling and it was a huge driver of economic growth in many countries, including the USA, Germany and the United Kingdom! In fact, in the 18th century, London was the best lit city in the world, with over 5000 street lamps fuelled entirely by whale oil…!
How did whaling come about? Why was it so important to so many countries in the past and why do some countries still participate in this cruel practise?
The History of Whaling: The earliest known accounts of whaling were from prehistoric times (~3000 BC) where it was limited to communities that lived on, or near, the coast. Whales were an important resource, especially in locations like Greenland where temperatures were too cold to grow crops. Every part of the animal was used: meat and blubber rich in nutrients were eaten, oil was used to fuel lamps and bones were used to make tools, decorative objects or sleds. In those days, whaling was low-scale, consisting of subsistence hunting and the harvesting of beached whales. This would have had a minimal impact on the global whale population.
Decorated whale teeth
However, industrial whaling fleets began to emerge in the 17th century when countries realised that large profits could be made from harvesting these seemingly abundant and ‘free’ resources. Nations began competing in earnest for catches in the 18th and 19th centuries with the Dutch dominating the industry until 1750; but it wasn’t until the development of factory ships and superior hunting weapons (explosive harpoons) that we really began to see the impact of our activities.
An abandoned 20th century whaling vessel in South Georgia | © Serge Ouachée
The Consequences of Whaling:
By 1880, some oceans had been exploited to such an extent that whaling ships were returning to ports empty handed. This intensified hunting efforts in other areas, especially the species-rich waters surrounding the Antarctic.
Around the island of South Georgia, a total of 184 whales were killed in 1904. However, within just ten years, this number had increased to 28,408 kills.
In 1927, more than 13,775 whales were killed in Antarctic waters in one season… a number that nearly tripled to 40,201 whales in two years. By 1937, the number of whales killed in the Antarctic had increased to 45,000.
In just sixty years, after the launch of factory ships and explosive harpoons, more than 2 million whales had been killed in the Southern Hemisphere, with species like the blue whale, sei whale and North Atlantic right whale hunted to near extinction.
The extreme overexploitation and noticeable depletion in whale stocks forced nations to act. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) introduced a global ban on commercial whaling, and whilst many countries readily signed this moratorium, others refused to or ignored the sustainable guidelines, continuing to hunt whales on a large scale under the guise of scientific research.
The Importance of Whales:
Whales play several crucial roles in our oceans…
Firstly, they contribute to nutrient cycling. For example, their faeces are utilised by small organisms to access organic carbon and even their carcass is important in carbon cycling. As it falls to the deep-sea floor, carbon that was acquired at the surface and stored in the whale’s tissues is deposited in the sediments, effectively removing carbon from the atmosphere. This could prove important in the context of climate change. It has been estimated that if whale stocks recovered to their natural level, 1.6 x 10^5 tonnes of carbon would be exported to the ocean floor – that’s 36 double decker buses of carbon per day! Secondly, whale carcasses provide novel habitats and an abundance of food for hundreds of deep-sea organisms that live in an environment barren of such resources. Hagfish sleeper sharks and many invertebrates may remove between 40-60kg of whale tissue per day! Even the bones are used as microbes break down the remains.
As well as playing a functional role in the ecosystem, whales are hugely charismatic and have high conservation value. It is estimated that, globally, whale watching generates US $413 million per year in marine tourism! In Iceland, whale-watching packages bring in over 300,000 tourists annually, equalling the country's entire population!
Present day Whaling:
Iceland and Norway both authorised whaling in open defiance of the 1986 IWC moratorium. In Iceland, the whaling season began in June and authorities granted a target of 191 fin whale kills. This is an increase from the 2015 season, where Iceland’s whalers were allowed to hunt 154 fin whales and 229 minke whales.
One documentary called ‘Breach’, produced by Jonny Zwick, found that the pro-whaling attitude in Iceland is largely due to nationalistic and cultural views. After gaining independence in 1944, Johnny believes that Icelanders do not want to be told what they can and can’t do with their resources. Furthermore, they believe that the practise can be conducted sustainably.
Whalers haul a catch onto a fishing boat off the west coast of Iceland | © Adam Butler
The Japanese government did not openly defy the 1986 IWC moratorium, rather, it continues whaling under the guise of scientific research. Their recent haul includes 333 minke whales, 122 of which were pregnant. There have been few results from this ‘scientific research’ and the majority of the whale meat ends up in restaurants. What’s more, a report in 2013 concluded that this industry is no longer profitable and had to be subsidised by the Japanese government. So, with a decreasing demand for whale meat and a seemingly dying business, why bother to hunt whales at all?
Whaling is embedded in Japanese culture - many coastal communities (e.g. in Chiba and Ishinomaki) have long practised the hunting of whales. However, the scale of whaling in Japan increased after WWII, when the human population were almost entirely reliant on whales as a food resource.
Nowadays, the demand for whale meat has declined sharply and it seems that the younger Japanese generation views whales as creatures that need to be protected. It seems that whaling in Japan is largely driven by a small portion of pro-whalers, trying to cling on to the fact that whaling is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
The future for whaling:
The cessation of commercial whaling by numerous countries that signed the IWC moratorium has resulted in some successes, with species like the humpback whale making an incredible recovery. But, many other species, including the blue whale, sei whale and North Atlantic right whale are still struggling to increase their populations. In a world where whales face so many other threats (global warming, shipping, noise pollution), one thing that we can and should stop is commercial whaling.