Dead in the Water: The Commercial Whaling Industry in 2019

Josh Wright

30 Jul 2019

Though condemnation is widespread and the demand for meat is low, three countries continue to slaughter whales for profit

In some of the most remote places on earth – places like the windswept, ice-choked lands of South Georgia in the Subantarctic, or the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic, where scant human presence and consistently cold temperatures help to preserve evidence of previous occupation – it is possible to see the decrepit remains of a once flourishing industry that is now a shadow of its former self. Sights like the rusting machinery and sarcophagi-like buildings found at Grytviken in South Georgia, or the piles of beluga whale bones resting on the shores of Ingebrigtsenbukta in Svalbard, serve as a memorial to the unsustainable exploitation of the planet's whales that drove some species to the brink of extinction in the 20th century.

Once hunted for their meat, bones and blubber – the latter of which can be turned into a type of oil – whaling was once a global and highly lucrative industry that harvested upwards of 60,000 whales a year at its peak in the 1960s and 70s, but today is practiced only by a handful of nations. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up in 1946 to regulate the industry, but by 1969, huge declines in whale populations around the globe led to many countries imposing a complete ban on whaling. Finally, in 1986, the IWC established an international moratorium on the commercial hunting of the 13 “great whale” species, a grouping which includes such species as the blue, humpback and sperm whales. This moratorium, along with increased conservation attention, has helped many (though not all) whale populations to recover somewhat in the ensuing decades.

The continued overfishing of the oceans and scientific research into cetacean intelligence has led to growing cultural taboos around the killing of whales in many parts of the world. However, some cultures have continued their long traditions of whale hunting either in opposition to the IWC’s moratorium; as part of “scientific research”; as part of regulated subsistence harvests by indigenous communities; or by leaving the IWC altogether.

Japan has drawn perhaps the most criticism for their whaling practices in the years since the moratorium, culminating in their withdrawal from the IWC on June 30th 2019, after failing to muster support from other IWC member nations for a return to regulated commercial whaling. Since the moratorium, Japan had practiced a whaling programme in the Southern Ocean in the name of “scientific research”, but many critics accused Japan’s whaling officials of using this as a ruse. Japan sold the meat procured from these hunts commercially, in fish markets across the country.

Meanwhile, Japan’s lacklustre contribution to cetacean research began to raise further eyebrows. The controversy culminated in a case brought by Australia to the International Court of Justice in 2010, with Australia accusing Japan of using a scientific research programme to mask a commercial whaling venture in the Antarctic. The court rendered its judgment in 2014: Japan had indeed been conducting a commercial whaling operation, an activity banned by the IWC in 1986. Although the court did not order an immediate cessation of whaling activity, this ruling served to further tarnish Japan’s reputation among anti-whaling nations.

Five years on, and now free from the regulations of the IWC, Japan have relinquished all pretence and have now conducted their first (official) commercial whaling operations in over 30 years. Reacting to the news, Kitty Block, president of Humane Society International, said: “Japan leaving the IWC and defying international law to pursue its commercial whaling ambitions is renegade, retrograde and myopic. It is undermining its international reputation for an industry whose days are so clearly numbered, to produce a product for which demand has plummeted.”

And demand has indeed plummeted. Yearly whale meat consumption in Japan peaked at 223,000 tonnes in 1962, but has fallen sharply to less than 5,000 tonnes in recent years. After the country resumed commercial whaling in July, whaling company spokesman Masamitsu Sato was pleased with the development, but admitted: “We are all worried if our businesses can be profitable.” In 2019, Japan’s tastes have seemingly moved on.

According to a 2014 Asahi survey conducted in Japan, 4% of respondents said they occasionally eat the meat, while 10% said they had it on rare occasions. Annual per capita consumption now amounts to no more than a few slices of sashimi a year. Recent years have even seen Japan’s whaling industry attempt to boost consumer demand with nostalgic advertising campaigns aimed at older people – a key demographic who remember when whale meat was more common on Japanese menus during the post-war years – but there has been little increase in demand as a result.

However, despite the seemingly small market for whale meat, a recent survey from Junko Sakuma, a researcher at Rikkyo University, found that 70% of Japanese are in favour of whaling. For many Japanese, whaling is evidently a point of national pride. By ensuring the practice continues, they are protecting part of a culture longstanding in Japan. “The whale-eating issue is a symbol of respect for different cultures,” says Joji Morishita, who negotiated Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC. “Many people in Japan think it's not right for people from outside to impose food culture on other places.”

Things are not so cut and dry, it seems. On the face of it, slaughtering marine mammals with demonstrable intelligence, social structures, and even cultures is just as abhorrent – perhaps more so – as the slaughtering of elephants of their ivory. But the whaling industry in Japan is not one full of desperate, poverty-stricken individuals driven to kill for their own survival. A 2013 report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that only about 1,000 people in Japan are employed in the whaling industry, with the government subsidising their work at a cost of about $400 million annually. In the words of Captain Paul Watson, the Founder of conservation organisation Sea Shepherd, “Whaling in Japan is a dying industry that survives only by the politically motivated injection of massive government subsidies.”

Clearly this is an ideological rather than a practical issue. Catering to an increasingly shrinking and ageing market, the Japanese whaling industry is unprofitable and floundering amid almost universal condemnation from the international community. Some say it is a valuable part of the national identity that helped to drive Japan’s economic growth in the post-war years, while others – like the IFAW in their aforementioned report – maintain that the notion that “whaling is a cultural and nutritional necessity [for Japan] is profoundly and increasingly untrue… whaling is dying in the hearts, minds, stomachs, wallets, and marketplaces of Japan”.

While Japan are currently at the centre of a controversial spotlight, there are two other nations who remain members of the International Whaling Commission but have continued to pursue commercial whaling in opposition to the moratorium. Iceland and Norway both hunt whales within their territorial waters, and though they set their own quotas, they must provide information to the IWC about their catches. Iceland hunt common minke whales and fin whales, while Norway hunt only common minke whales. Like Japan, both Iceland and Norway contend that whaling is a valuable part of their national heritage, yet their industries are hamstrung by the fact that only a small domestic market for whale meat exists in each country. In fact, due to the low domestic demand, whale meat harvested by these two Nordic nations is sometimes exported to Japan.

In Iceland, just two whaling companies remain. The largest and most well-known is Hvalur hf., whose owner, Kristján Loftsson, has gone on record to say: “Whales are just another fish for me, an abundant marine resource, nothing else.” Loftsson’s wilful ignorance of whales’ intelligence – let alone their identity as mammals, not fish – is another example of contemporary whalers’ often obstinate attitude to the conception of commercial whaling in 2019. Hvalur hf. is also the only company in the world to hunt the endangered fin whale, which are killed with explosive-tipped harpoons (the weapon of choice for modern-day whalers).

This year, however, Hvalur hf. will not be hunting any whales – apparently, they did not get their permit in time. Meanwhile Iceland’s only other whaling company, IP Útgerð, have announced that they will also be foregoing whaling in 2019. Due to the lack of any real market for whale meat in Iceland, they will be harvesting sea cucumbers instead. As a result, 2019 marks the first time in 17 years that a summer will go by without Icelanders hunting whales. Speaking on the Icelandic whaling industry, Whale & Dolphin Conservation CEO Chris Butler-Stroud said: "This is a country that's embraced whale watching and has a different relationship with whales now. The reality is, the whale meat that's being consumed there is mostly by tourists, unfortunately.”

Iceland's strange situation, in which tourism drives both whale watching and whale hunting, is mirrored in the final member of commercial whaling’s unholy trinity: Norway. In 2018 the country increased its annual whaling quota to 1,278, but since the moratorium the country has never killed more than 750 whales in a single year. Critics see this as an example of the Norwegian government’s defensive stance towards whaling and its ambition to increase domestic demand for whale meat, similar to the attempts by Japanese government officials to drum up public support for an ailing industry in their own country.

As in Japan and Iceland, the market for whale meat in Norway has only ever been niche in the last few decades. Even operations seem to be scaling down: 432 whales were killed in 2016, the lowest figure since 1996, for example. 2016 also saw the lowest number of vessels actively whaling for over 25 years. Whaling professionals point to the lack of capacity at meat processing plants, and the migration of common minke whales to colder Arctic waters, as reasons for why Norway’s quotas continually fail to be met. Truls Gulowsen, the head of Greenpeace Norway, has a different take: “Norwegian whaling belongs to the past, is only maintained for narrow political reasons and should be phased out as quickly as possible.”

Similar to Japan, in an effort to reverse a domestic decline in demand for whale products, the Norwegian government have introduced a marketing plan to encourage whale meat consumption. Whale meat has been given modernised packaging, been included in ready meals, shipped to both local markets and national supermarket chains, and even been marketed towards schoolchildren as part of a government-subsidised program. Few dividends have been reaped however: a study from EFTEC in 2011 found that fewer than 5% of Norwegians regularly consume whale meat. Despite attempts to turn dead whales into cosmetics, vitamin supplements and protein powder, Gulowsen characterises whaling in Norway as “a dying business” that is “shrinking in demand every year”.

Aboriginal subsistence hunters continue to hunt whales using traditional methods in Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland, Indonesia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. A legal loophole allows South Korean fishermen who “accidentally” catch whales as bycatch to sell them in Korean markets. And in the Faroe Islands, hundreds of long-finned pilot whales are driven into shore and killed in the surf, turning the ocean blood-red, during an annual event known as grindadráp that dates back to the 13th century. The ethics behind these practices are best left for another day; the fact remains that the only truly commercial (and industrialised) whaling enterprises left in the world are those implemented by Japan, Iceland and Norway, the three countries that have been at the heart of the commercial-whaling controversy since 1986.

Though conservationists may look forward to a world without a whaling industry, it seems somewhat far off yet. However, there is little sign that whale meat is ever going to be more than a niche desire for the people of the three commercial-whaling countries, and indeed for the tourists hoping to sample “traditional” cuisine. Though those of us who value animal welfare may see the death of any cetacean as cause for outcry, we can rest assured that a return to the days of a global whaling industry that threatened to exterminate whales from the face of the earth is highly improbable.

Though far from negligible, it is worth noting also that neither Iceland or Norway have harvested more than 1,000 whales in a single year since the moratorium, and Japan only broke this threshold twice during their “scientific” hunts; in fact, reported catches for all three countries have often been closer to half that number. In addition, the majority of whales harvested are minke whales, a species rated as Near Threatened (in the Antarctic) or Least Concern (in the Northern Hemisphere), and of which around 200,000 are though to exist in Earth’s waters. Our most endangered whales are, thankfully, not at risk.

In poorer parts of the world, the “worth more alive than dead” argument has reaped dividends. For example, former poachers and bushmeat hunters have become rangers and wildlife trackers in Africa, working now to save the animals that they once killed as a livelihood. Whaling, though, does not seem to be a pursuit that one gets into for purely monetary gain. Japan, Norway and Iceland are all thriving first-world countries, and in fact occupy the first three spots in the Human Development Index (when adjusted for inequality).

Whaling offers few tangible benefits, but it is hard to quantify what it offers culturally, and for those of us who are not part of a culture that values whaling, it is impossible to fully understand the justification of the practice. We are dealing with extremely divergent views: pro-whaling states view whales as a resource to be exploited, but a resource that offers their people something more than mere sustenance; meanwhile anti-whaling states view whales as intelligent lifeforms to be respected.

However, if the majority of the commecial-whaling countries’ inhabitants have access to the foods of the modern world in their predominately temperate climates and no longer need to rely on subsistence hunting to survive, as do certain indigenous peoples in the Arctic for example, the case can be made that no matter how treasured hunting may be to one’s national identity, there are plenty of other ways to express this than the killing of an animal – a wild animal, no less, that is among the most intelligent beings on the planet. And of course, if those that are against whaling are also those that continue to enjoy meat from other animal sources – particularly if they do not prepare it themselves – this raises another ethical dilemma: how does one decide which animals deserve to live, and which deserve to die? How does one quantify the life and death of a living being?

Convincing the most ardent pro-whaling Japanese, Icelanders and Norwegians that whaling should be abandoned is to be mostly an ideological battle, but the growing demand for whale watching can certainly be used as a driver to convince them that a more humane alternative is preferable. A mutually beneficial future for both humans and whales is possible. Traditions are of course to be respected, but must they be immutable? We owe it to the world’s whales, to our mammalian cousins, to at least consider the possibility that some traditions are best left in the past.

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