There has been much published at this blog about whaling including letters from Libby Eyre and Glenn Inwood. I have just today received a letter from Peter Corkeron which is posted below. The letter has been edited including through the addition of subheadings.
In the letter Peter explained he was employed to study the population biology of seals in Norwegian waters for nearly four years to 2004. He worked as part of the marine mammal research group, first at the Norwegian Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture Research (NIFA), then at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (IMR), both in Tromsoe, northern Norway. He has a PhD from the University of Queensland in 1989 (on dolphins in Moreton Bay) and is the author of over 60 refereed papers and book chapters on aspects of the biology of marine mammals. He has worked on dolphins, whales, dugongs and seals.
Is the Norwegian approach achieving a demonstrably sustainable harvest of baleen whales – in their case, northern minke whales, Balaenoptera acutorostrata?
I guess if you’ve taken an interest in whaling, you’re aware that what the Norwegians claim to be doing is implementing the Catch Limit Algorithm (CLA) of the IWC’s Revised Management Program (RMP), developed by IWC Scientific Committee through the 1980s and finalized in the early 90s. The RMP is one facet of the Revised Management Scheme (RMS), which also includes things like an international observer programme, but the implementing RMS still hasn’t been resolved at the IWC. If you’re not aware of the details of this, there’s primary literature around that explains it.
What about the Norwegian implementation of the RMP? There are a couple of issues with what’s been done over the past few years, since Norway gave up scientific whaling in the early 90s and returned to commercial whaling.
Minke quotas have trended upwards over time – the 2006 quota is 1052 animals. Some of this has come from carrying over untaken quotas from previous years – not a part of the RMP/RMS as far as I’m aware. Some has come from changing the “tuning level” – a multiplier built into the CLA/RMP to allow for uncertainty, and changing circumstances. Other problems with quota setting include that predominantly female minkes are taken, and (as I understand it) the CLA assumes a balanced sex ratio in a hunt.
On the science side, one main data requirement is an estimate of abundance with associated estimate of error. The point estimates for northern minke abundance from Norwegian surveys increased, as you note. But the two survey series weren’t directly comparable as they covered somewhat different areas. The most recent survey series was not synoptic – the survey area was divided into 5, with one area surveyed in each of five years. These surveys are logistically difficult to run, and synoptic surveys are really hard to organize – I think the last was in 1995.
So a strong assumption (that is, an assumption that, if it’s wrong, the analysis wrong) is that whales don’t move between survey areas between years. This remains untested.
The actual surveys are vessel-based distance sampling surveys – I’m presuming that you know what distance sampling is (and if this goes to your blog, folks will read up on it).
I’ve never taken part in one of the minke surveys, but know how they work, as I’ve taken part in others elsewhere (US waters, Antarctic). Unlike virtually all other vessel-based surveys for cetaceans, the Norwegian team don’t use binoculars. They have their reasons for this, but it reduces their effective strip width, hence their survey coverage and so the precision of their abundance estimates.
There have been technical queries in past years regarding the Norwegian surveys – double counting (i.e. accidentally recording one whale as two) is an example I recall from the 90s. These have been published as papers in the IWC journal and details can be found there. You have to read through the dry, mathematical language to get at the points being made. There are others who know far more about the machinations within the IWC than I do as I’ve only been to one IWC Scientific Committee meeting.
Is the Harvest Sustainable?
To quote you: “I have repeatedly stated that Norway claims to be sustainably harvesting whales and to the extent that I have researched the issue there claim appears to hold up. I have repeatedly been told, however, that the sustainable harvest of whales is neither possible nor desirable nor ethical.”
Whether the sustainable harvest of baleen whales is desirable or ethical – well, my opinion is worth no more than anyone else’s so I won’t give it.
I’ll give some thoughts on whether the information we have on what the Norwegian minke hunt over the past decade or so tells me regarding the practical possibility for a sustainable harvest of baleen whales. Because it does seem like Norwegians are sustainability hunting minke whales. The devil is, as always, in the detail.
Once it became clear that the RMP/RMS deliberations were bogged down at the IWC, Norwegians decided to recommence commercial whaling, applying the CLA/RMP as seemed appropriate (I’m glossing over a lot of history in this sentence). Over time (this has been going on for a little over a decade), quotas set have trended upwards, and now don’t bear much resemblance to quotas that would have been set under the way that the IWC Scientific Committee designed the RMS.
So, this management procedure, developed to ensure sustainability (as far as humanly possible) hasn’t actually been implemented by the Norwegians.
So in practice, we don’t know whether what’s happening now is likely to lead to an increase, decrease or no change in the abundance of northern minke whales in the north-east Atlantic and Barents Seas.
It’s important to remember that demonstrating sustainability takes more than just doing some very simple back-of-the-envelope calculations about maximum likely reproductive rates of a mammal population. In the first place, the science of wildlife biology / population ecology involves much more, as I’m sure you’re aware. And second, calculating quotas is a small part of managing a fishery (or marine wildlife hunt) – just ask any anyone working in a fisheries management agency. Managing the behaviour of people once quotas have been established is also important. The final decision on quotas for the minke hunt is made by the Norwegian Sjopattedyrradet (marine mammal advisory board), comprised of industry representatives, based on advice from the Fisheries Directorate, who in turn receive advice from IMR.
So in theory, the sustainable harvest of whales may be possible. As things are playing out in Norway at present, this remains theory.
On Harvesting Dugongs
Could the CLA/RMP/RMS management approach (or some variant thereof) be applied to, for instance, dugong harvesting by indigenous Australians?
[Click here for Jennifer’s original question on this issue.]
And the IWC’s approach is being modified for application to what the IWC classes as Aboriginal Subsistence whaling, which may prove an even more useful model.
I’d like to touch on another point that’s been missing the blogdebate underway at your site.
Your comment[following the post by Libby Eyre] is an interesting one:
“You are rebelling as a romantic against science and economics. Romantics identify with natural systems, scientists study them, some economists recognise the reality of human nature and work with, rather than against it.”
I get a quiet chuckle when folks of an economic rationalist bent use Norwegian whaling for an example of wildlife utilization.
Norwegian markets for food are about as far removed as you can get from what IPA-type folks would consider acceptable.
One aspect of whether Norwegian whaling is sustainable or not that gets missed completely – by both sides, it appears – is the economics of the Norwegian market for food. From an OECD report on agricultural subsidies in 2004, Norway is one of the five worst offenders internationally when it comes to overpaying their internal agricultural lobby.
The other four are Japan, Iceland (notice the pattern?), South Korea and Switzerland. And tariffs on imported food in Norway are very high.
Australians may be astonished to learn that one of the reasons against Norway joining the EU is Norwegian agricultural subsidies would have to be dramatically reduced to drop to EU levels.
So prices for meat in Norway are artificially high. Given the current population sizes of baleen whales in the northeast Atlantic, were a management regime for whaling that demonstrated a decent chance of being sustainable (the IWC’s RMS or something similar) ever implemented, the meat would be so expensive that it would probably price itself out of an open market.
How Popular Is Whale Meat?
A couple of asides from living in northern Norway – I’ve seen ‘fresh’ whale meat turning green as it sat on sale at the local fish market, waiting to be bought. It’s not that popular. And folks from elsewhere in the world who’ve moved to Tromsoe set up stalls and sell their traditional food at weekend markets in summer.
Sometimes at these markets, there was also a stand giving away free meals of whale meat, part of the government drive to encourage Norwegains to eat whale. Government-funded undercutting of small businesses run by enterprising migrants.