I’m going to take a little time out of my Friday night schedule (*cough* packed as it is) to talk to you about whales, whaling and why Australia – and the global community – needs to step up and tell countries that persist in the commercial hunting of whales to sit down and have a cup of chai already.

For context: articles like this one  that I read this morning are less interesting to my mind for a supposed ‘slip’ by the Japanese Fisheries Minister where he openly admits whaling is not happening for scientific purposes (but it’s their whale-meat catered party and they’ll hunt if they want to) but rather the reason behind why they think the rest of the world are hypocrites that should mind their own business. By the way, ‘scientific whaling’ is just a loose term for destructive population monitoring (apparently DNA samples aren’t enough and it’s just better off to kill the whole thing because science). In short they need to kill some whales, so they know when there’s enough whales, so they can kill lots more of them again.

Before you have time to develop a headache over that logic bubble – let’s talk anthropomorphism (that thing we do where we think everything is kinda like us cos we rock the most and yes my dog thinks that diamante collar is just divine). Now I don’t know about you, but I have an on-again, off-again accepting relationship with my own internal levels of hypocrisy (and of course we all harbour a little hypocrisy boat in our minds that bobs about merrily in the Bay of Double Standards). When confronted with a reality-check spotlight shining on what could feasibly be called 'cherry picking details to suit some doe-eyed tree hugging hippy ideal of utopian splendour', then I like to have enough facts in my arsenal to back it up and grind said riposte like bones for my bread (thereby ensuring they will never call me for a second date. Ever.)

Anyway, whales. The counter-argument from the fisheries minister is that Koreans eat dogs, Australians eat kangaroos etc – I’m assuming this is pointing out that we’re all guilty of eating the poster children for cute and charismatic species – so why should whales be any different? Are we discriminating against species purely on emotive levels to fit our cultural ideals of what is right? It does seem that, as a general rule, we are quite hypocritical about the animals we decide it’s ok to eat and the ones it’s not. And those distinctions seem to be quite arbitrary. And we do get up in knee-jerky arms about the intelligent ones, the cute ones, the iconic ones while the creepy, crawly, ugly or inert ones...meh, not so much. In fact the recent argument that certain species should be afforded extra rights (pigs, dolphins) over other animals (sorry cows and ducks, you lose) strikes me as just reinforcing the idea that problem-solving intelligence is the measure of all things and consequently more worthy of ethical respect... because we have problem-solving intelligence (though are possibly not yet quite intelligent enough to realise that intelligence can manifest in other ways).

Well, this has totally got away from me and I haven’t even got to the science stuff yet. Bear with me. So why shouldn’t whales be hunted any longer? Apart from the fact that they’re awesome and smart and we totally want to swim with them because they have magical powers? Well, all rainbow-pooping sentiment aside there are a number of things about whales that mean they’re poor candidates for harvesting. 

First, we have to consider the fact that globally, whale populations have been pushed to the brink and will take decades to recover, if ever (the way we’re going). Not so long ago we were all out Moby Dicking it out on the high seas to such a point that populations of many whale species crashed. The international moratorium on whaling only came into full force in 1986, and many still remain on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  This is because whales are a long lived and slow breeding species (in ecological terms they are known as k-selected species; slow reproduction, long gestation and rearing, few offspring, long lifespans). As a general rule k-selected species make poor candidates for harvesting – even less so the fewer offspring they have and the longer they take to raise them.

The target of modern day whaling, however, is the more relatively abundant Minke whale (how much more abundant is unclear as nobody seems to have a decent handle on how many there are but they estimate maybe 800,000ish) except here’s a few points
a) though globally dispersed there is little information on their migration patterns,
b) they don’t seem to really know where they go in winter,
c) there are now 3 known subspecies of Northern Minke whale (not yet assessed)
d) in the 1990s they classified a new species of Minke (the Antarctic or Southern Minke).
e) now the Antarctic Minke – don’t know so much about that either. According to IUCN, their population ‘appears’ to be in the hundreds of thousands. It also ‘appears’ to have declined by 60% since the 1970s, and they’re still working out the reason why (bad data or are they actually declining? Or a combination?  In the meantime let’s call them Data Deficient and assume there’s enough to carry on some low level harvesting tralala). One thing they do know is this decline is Minke Whale specific. Also, they don’t know where they go in winter either (clearly over-winter hiding is some kind of whale conspiracy). Oh, and there seems to be some genetic distinction between the ones on the Indian side, and the ones on the Pacific side...(isn’t it great how the whalers are killing so many so we can figure out WTF these enigmatic bastards are up to? Oh, no wait – they’re not doing that).

But why is the Minke Whale population so much more than the other whales? Considering how relatively 'common' they are they must have been doing something right these last few centuries, right? Hmm, not so much. A big part of the reason is that historically they have been largely ignored by the whaling industry (who favoured that larger almost-all-gone-now species) until recently. So the assertion that eating whale meat is a cultural practice clearly overlooks the type of whale that has been hunted (not Minke). Well maybe a horse is a horse of course of course (even when they say it’s beef) and one whale is very much like another when it comes to ‘tradition’. And maybe tradition is flexible enough that one location is very much like another when it comes to hunting (it bears mentioning that the first Japanese whaling ships didn’t enter Antarctic waters until the 1930s).

Another couple of additional points are to do with oceanic health. Not only is the overall food chain starting to form disturbingly weak spots with increasing oceanic pollution in all its weird and wonderful forms, but whales - along with many other marine species - are subject to growing pressures from ocean traffic, noise pollution and unknown effects of climate change. Without a full ecological picture of what is going on, is it really so wise to assume any level of hunting is sustainable?

In any case, regardless of tradition, whales are not a nation-specific wild species. They are a global species, and as such need to be managed according to a global consensus. In the case of counter-arguments presented for kangaroo and dogs – well, differing cultural norms do apply but both of these examples deal with a nation-specific or domesticated animals (i.e. I doubt Asian nations are on a mass poodle hunting exercise in the backwaters of Essex, somehow). The environmental movement is much further advanced than it was in the mid 80s and issues-based real-time media sharing is honing in more and more on controversial activities. So the case of cultural respect needs to be firmly lobbed back into the Japanese court, who are flying in the face of international sentiment in areas where they have no traditional basis to be. Tradition is not an immutable concept, after all, if it was we’d all still be tugging forelocks and trading goats for women. It moves with the times, with changing attitudes and with changing circumstances. Traditionally, human culture is flexible like that.

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