Libby Eyre sent me the following letter which is really a critique of an article that I wrote for Online Opinion titled No Science and No Respect in Australia’s Anti-Whaling Campaign.
In the letter Libby asks why I put the case for whaling and also quotes some comment from me at this blog. I wrote back explaining that I write to understand issues and that I believe there is too much ‘blind opposition’ to the sustainable harvest of many plant and animal species.
But let’s read what Libby has to say. She is a researcher and museum curator at Macquarie University. She doesn’t like to be called an expert, but as been involved in cetacean research for over 20 years including with wild cetaceans and captive, and also marine mammal events such as strandings. Libby has also worked with Greenpeace including undertaking whale and dolphin surveys on board the Rainbow Warrior.
I am not quite sure what point you are trying to make with regards to the article “No science and no respect in anti-whaling campaign”. It would appear you are trying to put forward a balanced argument, and you state in comments that you are “motivated by a desire to understand the world around me and try, through my writing, to get as close as possible to the truth”. You also have written that you “care about whales”, and you “don’t like the idea of killing whales”. I am concerned that although you appear to want to report the truth and appear unbiased, comments such as “it is well known I am sympathetic to whaling” would suggest otherwise.
You have written that commercial harvesting uses more humane methods than aboriginal subsistence whaling. You also write later that “Whales are said to die instantly when struck by a harpoon”. There is no guaranteed humane way of killing a large whale at sea. It is difficult enough euthanasing the smaller species in a humane fashion when they are lying on a beach. Although the Norwegian scientists do research on killing techniques and time to death, the current practices used are still able to cause extreme suffering if an accurate hit is not obtained. As there are no independent observers on whaling vessels operated by the Japanese, Norwegians or Icelanders, researchers have to take information provided by these countries on face value. The Norwegians claim they kill >80% of whales instantly, whereas the Japanese instantaneous kill rate is said to be 40%. A significant number of whales in both the Norwegian and Japanese hunts require secondary killing methods, such as high calibre rifles to kill them. When the Japanese kill the 10 fin whales in the Antarctic this year (50 in subsequent years), they will use the same size explosive grenade that they use for minkes, which are about 8 times smaller in size.
With regards to the smaller odontocetes not being regulated by the IWC – the IWC has a small cetaceans sub-committee which meets when the Scientific Committee does prior to the plenary meetings. As you would know, the Scientific Committee is made up of leading cetacean researchers from around the world, who are there due to their knowledge and expertise to advise and provide facts on the state of the cetacean environment, discuss sanctuaries, model populations and work out possible sustainable quotas. The IWC has traditionally been an organization set up by whalers for whalers, however due to the lack of ability to adequately manage whale stocks, and the subsequent crash of great whale populations, a moratorium was in place, and more emphasis was given to the scientific community to model future trends in whale populations. Small cetaceans have not traditionally been viewed in the commercial whaling discussions at the IWC, but the IWC have recognised that there needs to be discussion about these animals, as many are now threatened with extinction. It should be noted that the Japanese are against discussions on small cetaceans as they have never been part of IWC negotiations.
With regards to the consumption of the pilot whale meat in the Faroe Islands, high levels of heavy metals have been found in the meat, and could possibly have severe adverse health effects on those that consume it. It would be a tragedy if these people risked the health of their children because of traditional (and cruelly executed) practices. Persistent organic pollutants have been detected in cetaceans from seemingly remote populations, and the health repercussions of eating products from small and large cetaceans should not be readily dismissed.
You have pointed out that “Norwegian whalers have a long cultural tradition of killing, eating and selling whale products”, and some of the comments on the blog have rightly pointed out that Japan’s history of whaling is mainly post WWII, when they had little else to eat. Some social commentators suggest that the Japanese hang on to the idea of eating whales as it reminds them of the hard times they went through after the War. Traditions are by their nature somewhat emotionally driven, rather than logical. Many past times and events are carried out in the name of tradition when they have been superseded by superior technology or knowledge. Certain cultures would argue that genital mutilation is traditional amongst them, but that doesn’t make it morally right when you consider the pain and suffering the individuals endure. We often hang on to traditions because they remind us the good old days and how things used to be, or perhaps because “it’s always been done that way”. These are emotional rather than logical arguments a lot of the time. Having a long cultural tradition of doing something does not justify its continuation. Using the traditional argument is an emotional tactic similar to what you accuse Senator Campbell of employing.
You wrote that “Norway resumed commercial whaling in defiance of the IWC”, and that the Norwegians maintain that the “harvest is based on scientific advice supported by the best available knowledge”. I wonder what makes their knowledge any more superior than the researchers who gather at the IWC scientific meetings each year? Would not these scientists also have an understanding of population dynamics and numbers?
Pro-whaling supporters say that we can learn a lot of information by studying dead whales. With advances in technology, we can learn more from studying whales alive than dead, including gathering follow-up data on individuals, which of course lethal techniques do not allow. Faecal studies provide the study of diet; biopsies provide a range of information on sex, reproductive state, health, population dynamics; acoustics provide behavioural and population information; photographic research provides individual life history information, migratory patterns, age and health information; tagging provides information on environmental factors such as depth and sea temperature along with acoustics of the subject and surrounds; and so on. The Japanese proposal to kill humpback whales will negatively impact on humpback whale research in areas such as the South Pacific and Australia. Some of these projects have been going for decades. The Japanese have doubled their quota of minke whales to meet the requirements of their scientific research, but do you need to kill almost 1000 animals to satisfy these research needs (or some 8000 animals since the JARPA programme was established)? Combined, other nations have killed approximately 2,100 whales for scientific research since 1952. Perhaps a more likely explanation for the increase in numbers is to use ‘science’ to advance a political agenda, namely using ex-commercial whaling vessels and equipment to kill whales to sell commercially and thus create a financial incentive to kill more whales. This mis-use of science does little to instil confidence in science or policy in the general public.
I do not agree that as a consequence of the anti-whaling campaign we have come to “venerate cetaceans”. It is my opinion, and that of others, that the oceanarium industry of the 60’s and 70’s brought about the ‘touchy-feely’ association with cetaceans. The ability to capture, house and train Orcas turned the public’s perception around enormously, along with the scientific work that was also being produced at the time on dolphin cognition and large whale acoustics (such as humpback whale song). The concern about anti-whaling likely arose from media images and a heightened awareness of the cognitive abilities and social lives of this group of animals. When I was a child, people would carve their initials in stranded cetaceans and put cigarette butts down their blowholes. There has been a massive change in opinion from fearing whales when you are in a boat to making money out of them. To suggest that Greenpeace is responsible for our change of heart towards whales is unreasonable, and to be totally honest, in Australia it was Project Jonah who led the protests in 1977 to close the Cheynnes Beach whaling station, not Greenpeace.
This forum appears to be very much ‘anti-green’, and you have already expressed “It is already well-known I have little sympathy for Greenpeace”. In an effort to try and discredit this organization, I am concerned that you yourself are not presenting the truth at times.
Are you suggesting that because we apparently “venerate cetaceans” we are biased when national and international environmental policies for the conservation of the species are developed? There is no question that cetaceans receive more positive press than stick insects. Sadly, it is human nature that makes us favour certain Orders over others. However, to claim that we are so awe-struck by these ‘mystical beings’ that scientists and policy makers can’t make unbiased and sensible decisions is plain insulting, as well as very silly.
I do agree with your comments on the need to better regulate the dugong hunting in Australian waters. Along with hunting, the species faces entanglement, boat strikes, habitat destruction, diminishing food resources and pollution. However, this is another issue altogether, and perhaps one you can make a positive contribution towards in your forum separately.
You say you support the right of indigenous communities and the Japanese and Norwegians to kill marine mammals as long as it is sustainable. Estimates of cetacean populations in the Antarctic and elsewhere vary widely, depending on who is doing the research, the techniques involved, the season and year surveys are conducted in, changes in possible ‘site fidelity’, the validity of old data such as whaling records, and the influence of factors such as predator-prey relationships and environmental dynamics. There are estimates from 1989 of 760, 000 minkes in the Antarctic (not considering stock/genetic identity), although the IWC no longer considers this number to be valid. In reality the figure could be as low as 300,000 (not considering stock/genetic identity). The numbers of minkes killed has increased for both the Japanese scientific kill and the Norwegian commercial hunt. Should commercial whaling resume by Japan and other countries, it is sensible to believe that the numbers will be significantly higher. Is it realistic to assume that the whale populations will remain at current levels (whatever they may be), and not be negatively impacted upon by other events such as global warming? The polar regions are particularly susceptible to climate change, and changes in sea surface temperature, sea ice coverage and ocean circulation are almost certain to change phytoplankton communities and all that depend on them.
The ability to honestly report numbers and species that are being killed is something that many are rightly sceptical about. We now know that the Soviets were conducting illegal whaling in a number of areas (most notably the Antarctic), after the protection of highly endangered species such as right and blue whales. Japanese researchers have also reported that sperm whale catches were under-reported in Japanese land-based whaling operations. The knowledge of the illegal Soviet catches makes it easier to understand why populations of humpbacks in the Fiji/Tonga breeding assemblages are not showing the same rates of recovery as the East and West Australia humpbacks. These populations are the ones the Japanese intend to start taking for their research under JARPA II. The taking of protected species such as humpback, fin and sei (the North Pacific JARPN II lethal research programme) whales, which are also highly migratory, demonstrates that this one nation has very little ‘respect’ for the conservation concerns and transient fauna of other nations.
Cetaceans, and in particular the large species such as the baleen whales, do not reproduce annually. They have low recruitment rates and take many years to reach sexual maturity. There is no way of telling the sex of a whale when you are standing behind the harpoon, and therefore you may be biasing the population by taking out mostly mature males or even pregnant females. One argument that is often used is that we eat (for example) cows. Cows are regular reproducers, and cows can be counted and adequately managed when they are in a paddock, even the size of one in the Top End. There is so much debate about population estimates of cetaceans that I am surprised you have not mentioned how hard it is to get accurate figures of whale stocks, be they in the Antarctic or North Atlantic. Cetaceans by their very nature are very hard to study as they spend so much time out of sight and inhabiting areas that are expensive and often difficult to survey properly. Migratory species like fin whales, although being the second largest animal on Earth, are largely unknown as a species. No one knows where the southern stocks of this endangered species winters and breeds, let alone what their numbers are. Counting the animals at sea is extremely difficult. Killing animals that we know very little about in order to gain further knowledge is irresponsible when there are non-lethal techniques available.
Of course whaling is not the only threat that whales now face. A female humpback whale will reproduce every 2-3 years. But her calf has a high risk of mortality in its first year due to a variety of factors such as predation, entanglement (maybe in Queensland shark nets), illness, its mother being compromised and so on. We know that low frequency sonar such as is used in naval exercises can cause mortality, that there is an increase in the numbers of cetaceans struck by ships (the northern right whale is highly endangered due to vessel strikes), that some 300,000 cetaceans die from entanglement in man-made fishing devices annually, and that scores are killed in pollution-triggered die-offs. That information is out there, and the numbers are often under reported. It is not a simple exercise of saying that whaling will have no impact on cetacean numbers when there are so many other factors at play as well.
You have argued that the Norwegians have a “reasoned and scientific approach” that we could “learn from”. One of their main arguments for hunting marine mammals is that they believe they are in direct competition for food resources. As far as I am aware, there is no reliable scientific evidence to support this. The dynamics of ecosystems and predator-prey relationships cannot be answered by simply taking out a single species of predator, such as minke or sei whales. Industrialised fishing is responsible for changes in composition and abundance of fish stocks. The commercial push for the resumption of commercial whaling is no different to fisheries, and fisheries statistics shows that many populations are already beyond their sustainable levels. In light of your “sympathetic” view on whaling, I see your support of Norway’s “reasoned and scientific approach” far from impartial.
Personally, my aversion to whaling is not “cultural”. It is based on the fact that there is no scientific, social or historical evidence to show me it is sustainable, in addition to it being inhumane, and unnecessary. I think you are underestimating the Australian public and most cetacean researchers, and putting your own opinions in a forum that you maintain is to be balanced, but is highly biased and also poorly researched and understood.