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Whales make healthy oceans – but not healthy casseroles

For decades, Japan has churned out misinformation and propaganda on whales and whaling in order to support a dying whaling industry that only continues thanks to government subsidies. Fear-mongering is largely centred around the popular refrain of ‘too many whales, eating too many fish’ and dire warnings of the catastrophic crash of fish stocks that will result if whales are not managed.  More recently – and playing upon people’s current fears about ‘food security’ – Japanese whalers are now suggesting that by killing some of these ‘plentiful but greedy whales’, we are not only protecting fish stocks but also providing a cheap protein source to feed the local human population.  Their hope is, of course, that many people will think “bingo, bongo, kill some whales: problems solved, easy as that!”

But do they think we are naïve enough to take Japan’s assertions at face value? Certainly, in the wake of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) ruling in late March which halted Japan’s so-called ‘scientific whaling’ in the Antarctic, we might have expected to see a somewhat chastened Japan in recent months, but not a bit of it. Despite the ruling coming from the ICJ, the United Nation’s court and the highest judicial body in the world, Japan’s highly-influential Fisheries Ministry has clearly decided that a combination of defiance and dismissal is the best tactic.

This attitude was clearly in evidence at this year’s IWC (International Whaling Commission) meeting when Japan not only refused to support New Zealand’s proposal to see the ICJ judgement appropriately reflected in the workings of the IWC, but then boldly requested  a quota to kill minke whales in the waters off its east coast. This was rejected, as was a proposal by some African nations to promote commercial whaling as an issue of ‘food security’. The debate around this proposal employed considerable emotive language suggesting that it was vital to combine the “sustainable use of our oceans” with “satisfying the right to food and nutritional security of millions of people” and thus the proposal will almost certainly resurface at the next IWC meeting in 2016.  The rejection of these proposals could be interpreted as a success of course, but remains a concern to us since Japan has been caught buying African votes in the past and pro-whaling nations will undoubtedly find new and inventive ways to promote their cause.

Meanwhile, Japan has been marketing both whaling and whale meat consumption with considerable vigour back home, including TV broadcasts criticising New Zealand for attempting to tarnish Japan’s reputation over whaling and promotion of whale meat curry being served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ cafeteria and at various official functions.

So what are the facts?

  • Whaling doesn’t just harm whales, it harms marine ecosystems as a whole

With whale populations devastated by commercial whaling – the decline in total numbers is estimated to be at least 66% (possibly as high as 90%) – there can be little doubt that the removal of vast numbers of these key components of oceanic health has had a profound impact on marine ecosystems across the globe.

  • Whales are essential for the health of our oceans

Scientists argue that whales play an essential role in keeping the oceans healthy, by acting as ‘marine ecosystems engineers’. In a review of decades of research on the role of baleen and sperm whales upon marine ecosystems, the authors found that large whales help to keep the planet healthy, both while they are alive and even when they die, providing they remain in the marine environment. Because large whales move both vertically through the water column, and across ocean basin, they move nutrients throughout the ocean creating what researchers refer to as the “whale pump” aiding in the production of oxygen and reduction of atmospheric CO2

As well as being predators themselves, some of these species are prey to other large ocean predators, including orcas. In their absence, predators are forced to feed on less desirable prey, causing a cascade of impacts on the marine food chain.  Whales which die of natural causes out at sea sink to the bottom and become host to a mini-ecosystem of thier own, supporting generations of bacteria, crabs, snails, and worms, each of which goes on to play their role in keeping the oceans healthy as a result. 

  • Whales rarely compete with humans for fish

Whaling nations often argue the need to cull whales because they are eating commercially-valuable fish stocks. However, these arguments have been well and truly refuted by researchers Kristin Kaschner and Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, Canada  who mapped fish catches against species which whales and seals are known to eat. Their research demonstrated unequivocally that, whilst whales and seals globally may eat up to 600 million tonnes of fish, there is very little overlap with human fisheries because whales and seals largely catch species we don’t target, in areas we don’t fish. Dr Pauly slammed Japan’s assertion that whales and other marine mammals eat fish stocks which could otherwise feed the world’s hungry people as “cynical and irresponsible” adding “there is no need to wage war on [marine mammals] in order to have fish to catch.”

  • Whales are generally not a healthy food source for humans

The fact remains that as a source of protein (and fat), some whale species, as apex predators, bio-accumulate toxins.  This makes them wholly unsuitable as a food source for humans. In fact, a resolution was passed in 2012 at the IWC specifically because “scientific evidence demonstrates that some communities may be faced with health problems arising from the high level of such contaminants that are present in those products in their diet.” 

  • Whaling is a brutal way to die, particularly for a social, intelligent species

But there is something further here and this is important for whales, not just us. Whales are complex social mammals, many have rich social lives, some even share information between each other in what are now recognised as non-human cultures. Some argue that the social bonds in some whale species are so strong that instead of having an individual sense of ‘I’, they have a stronger collective sense of ‘we’: something we social, but more individualistic, humans often find hard to grasp.

There is no simple, swift, painless way to kill whales during hunting. They don’t arrive ‘shrink-wrapped and oven ready’ on the beach. There is, instead, a very tightly-held, ugly secret about how whales die at sea. It is rarely swift, but instead filled with terror and panic and often takes place in front of those very family and social group members with which they hold these incredibly tight social bonds.

  •   ‘As the rainforests are the planet’s lungs, so the oceans are its lifeblood’.

So let’s see… whales are essential for the healthy functioning of our oceans, they are not particularly healthy for humans to eat and their large-scale removal from the ocean is likely to damage not only the ocean ecosystems, but perhaps the biosphere as a whole. Any nation that is truly interested in future food security would do a lot better to look towards maintaining the integrity of our oceans, rather than continuing to plunder diminished whale populations.

Vanessa Williams-Grey, Philippa Brakes and Regina Asmutis-Silvia