By Cleo Abramian
Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come under criticism for declaring to a parliamentary committee that he wished to resume commercial whaling in the Antarctic. This comment came in the wake of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) March ruling to temporarily ban Japan’s annual whale hunt off Antarctica. The ruling was prompted by the Australian and New Zealand governments, who expressed skepticism over Japan’s alleged scientific whaling programs. For years, Japan has claimed to carry out its research in the name of whale resource management, while selling the meat to Japanese markets once the data has been obtained. The ICJ’s investigation, however, found that the hunts lacked scientific foundation and allowed Japan to backhandedly carry out commercial whaling.
Commercial whaling has been banned internationally since 1986, in a statute instituted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Nonetheless, Japan has continued whale ventures using a legal loophole. Norway and Iceland also still whale commercially, but through a formal objection or “reservation” to the IWC moratorium, setting their own catch limits and reporting catches to the Commission.
Conservation organizations and activists groups have long criticized commercial whaling, deeming it a prime example of the ecocide thinning our planet’s already jeopardized ecosystems. Environmental protection groups like Greenpeace are calling on governments to close loopholes that allow commercial whaling to continue. Marine wildlife non-profit Sea Shepherd takes more aggressive action, like ramming and stinkbombing illegal whaling ships, saving a reported 784 whales in the 2013-2014 season alone. While these marine vigilantes wage eco-war on the high seas, there are deeper and more complex issues beneath the politically charged surface.
Aside from its publicized scandals like commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean and the grind in the Faroe Islands, whaling remains a longstanding cultural practice amongst indigenous populations in the Arctic. It is small-scale and based on the nutritional needs of communities. For the native Alaskan Iñupiat people, for example, whaling is deeply tied to their life system, lying at the core of their beliefs and spiritual connection to the land. They celebrate traditions like Nalukataq (the blanket toss), and the entire community is involved in honoring the gift of the whale.
Their traditional hunting knowledge, which also incorporates currents, ice movements, and storms, is passed down through generations. They harvest bowhead whales, and one whale provides thousands of pounds of meat and muktuk for the community, which uses every part of the animal possible, such as the heart, kidneys, tongue, and intestines. While the whaling tradition has been delicately preserved in Alaska, it is being reinstituted in Canada’s Inuit communities as the stock of bowheads is on the rise. Now, hunting is being slowly reinstituted in the region, and this year Nunavut’s Inqaluit community welcomed their first hunt in the past century.
Termed aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW), these Arctic indigenous communities operate under an exception to the IWC moratorium. In many ways, their lifestyles exemplify sustainability, as they are one of the world’s few remaining hunter-gatherer peoples who have traditionally relied on natural resources and practices. The IWC has recognized, “Whaling, more than any other activity, fundamentally underlies the total lifeway of these communities.”
The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) recognizes the importance of whaling amongst indigenous communities, but wildlife biologist D.J. Schubert expresses concern about the transparency of aboriginal subsistence hunts: “Some ASW programs are operated more efficiently and transparently, while others are not. For the well-managed hunts, there is currently little evidence that they are harming populations, though in some cases we don't know enough about the individual stocks to really understand what the impacts are or the level of impact.”
The IWC says it is making efforts to encourage more humane practices, stating, “Penthrite grenades have been introduced to some communities, which significantly reduce the time from strike to death. Training has also been given to increase the precision of the hunts, and minimize the degree of distress and suffering for the animal.” This is also controversial, however, as introducing technology to make hunting safer and more humane is sometimes believed to mar aboriginal authenticity.
Is the moral of the story that commercial whale hunts are bad, while those in aboriginal communities are, to some extent, acceptable? Unfortunately, this binary frame still doesn’t cut it, as whaling’s ethical ambiguity extends into a third realm—small-scale commercial whaling, such as that of the fishing communities in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. National Geographic reporter Roff Smith researched fishermen in the region, who adjust their small wooden boats to accommodate whale harvests in the spring and summer. Spending time amongst the Lofoten whalers allowed Smith to grasp the bigger picture of whaling. “It is easy to be critical of whaling but learning about the Lofoten points of view and stories, they have valid points.”
Their operation is small, he explains, typically involving just the whaler and one or two deckhands. As far as threats to whaling populations are concerned, he states, “They [the Lofoten whalers] hunt Minke whales, which, by common consensus, are not endangered in the least and whose population can easily sustain the present quotas. They do not usually harvest even half of what they are allowed.” Smith discusses the dwindling whale market in the region, attributing it less to waning whale populations and more to a change in local mentality. As youth head to the city for new opportunity, there are fewer people invested in keeping up the local tradition. He explains, “Even the environmental organizations in Norway are inclined to leave whaling alone on the grounds that it is dying out of its own accord.”
Organizations such as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), nonetheless, group Norway and Iceland with Japan’s elicit whaling practices, citing 2,000 whales killed between the three countries annually. They, along with countless other organizations, point to the inhumanity of whaling, which often uses grenade harpoons that can subject whales to long and painful deaths. Some argue that whale hunting is vicious regardless of its cultural validity, and should be put away in history’s shameful attic box along with buffalo spearing and the guillotine. We must consider, however, that like whale populations, indigenous communities in the Arctic are also jeopardized by an increasingly industrial world. Harmful commercial practices, such as Japan’s “scientific” hunts, put not only whale populations at risk, but also the communities that rely on them—both endangering whale stocks and tainting the notion of whale hunting altogether.
The situation seems no longer as simple as Moby versus the evil Captain Ahab. Now add in environmental threats to whales like collision with vessels, chemical pollutants, bycatch, and noise emitted from industrial development, and sonar and seismic testing. The recently approved Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, for example, will pass through Canada’s most important and sensitive whale and dolphin habitat. Additionally, climate change continues to rear its head in the form of warming oceans and sea ice degradation in the Arctic and Antarctic, which affect whale habitats, food availability, and reproduction rates. The effects can be seen in the North Atlantic right whale, of which there may be 30 left. It is currently in the “endangered or vulnerable” category along with seven of the 13 great whale species. Though we must aggressively protect the delicate whale populations that remain and strengthen international whaling oversight, critics of whaling should consider the cultural and political nuances of the situation before making blanket judgments.
Cleo Abramian is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.