Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The International Whaling Commission this year voted in favour of a return to commercial whaling. It will not happen yet because the decision needs the support of three quarters of the members and fell well short. The Commission agreed a moratorium on whaling from 1985 because many species were in danger of extinction. Yet 2,500 whales are likely to be caught this year mostly by Norway who have put in a legal objection and by Japan for "scientific" study. Should a compromise be reached and whaling legitimised or are whales special?


At 7:01 am, Blogger Matt Burge said...

Difficult issue this one. Yes, whaling needs to be sustainable but, gathering the data needed in order to determine and agree what the sustainable limits are is notoriously difficult. Japan exploits this and goes even further, it is alledged, buying votes (including from landlocked countries such as Mongolia) to back its bid for increased whaling. Norway simply ignores the IWC...hey, they're keeping up the ruthless Viking spirit!

OK, I understand there's a lot of meat on a whale. It's the 'gold' of the seas. Still, data I've seen that takes account of studies of whale numbers going back decades shows the rapid decline with most species. They are notoriously slow reproducers. For these reasons alone I believe most whale species should be protected.

At 7:04 am, Anonymous david@tokyo said...

I have an analysis of all that the commercial whaling moratorium achieved here:

If one believes in true conservation (as opposed to trying to make everyone believe that whales should be completely protected no matter how numerous whales may become), then one likely also hopes that a compromise will be reached at the IWC to allow limited catches set in line with advice from the IWC's Scientific Committee.

At 7:20 am, Anonymous david@tokyo said...

Quite right about it being difficult to get the data required, and get accurate estimates. That doesn't preclude the possibility of catch limits entirely however. From the IWC's Head of Science, Greg Donovan:

"That is why when we estimate numbers of whales, we also estimate the inevitable scientific uncertainty surrounding the numbers. So for example, we give a range (or 95% confidence limits) with a "central" estimate such as 8,000 (6,000-10,000). When giving management advice we always act in a precautionary way and give most weight to the lowest number."

> goes even further, it is alledged, buying votes (including from landlocked countries such as Mongolia) to back its bid for increased whaling.

In fact, there are 9 landlocked nations at the IWC, and only two of them voted with Japan at IWC 58 back in June:

Unfortunately, the IWC has been politicised for years. The main focus of discussions about this debate should be the science, rather than the politics.

> Norway simply ignores the IWC...

To be picky, Norway lodged an official objection to the commercial moratorium in accordance with the provisions of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

> Still, data I've seen that takes account of studies of whale numbers going back decades shows the rapid decline with most species.

Back in the old days, certainly whaling reduced stock after stock of whales. But a lot has changed since then.
Protection of most species is now seeing them recover.
The IWC Scientific Committee estimates for example that there are more than 40,000 humpbacks in the Southern Hemisphere now, and around Australia the species is predicted to be fully recovered in the next 1 to 2 decades.

The minke, while there is no current abundance estimate, is regarded to be more numerous today than prior to whaling in the Antarctic.

> They are notoriously slow reproducers.

Reproductive rates are just a single parameter. Other animals we harvest also reproduce comparitively slowly.

Looking at the big picture, if a stock of whales is acknowledged to be growing at rates of 10% each year (as is the case with the Humpback around Australia), there is no reason to believe that a small level of sustainable catch would not be possible. Obviously we should leave the precise decisions up to people (the IWC) who would decide in accordance with scientific advice (the IWC Scientific Committee).

> For these reasons alone I believe most whale species should be protected.

I also believe that species that are still depleted and have not recovered, such as the Blue at less than 2,000 in the Antarctic, should be most certainly be protected.
However various species today are evidently in pretty good shape, and the situation continues to improve, even for the Blue. Scientists recently confirmed that despite their low abundance, the Blue whale species is actually increasing at a rate of around 7% each year. Fabulous news for whale conservation.

At 7:33 am, Blogger Matt Burge said...

Hi David

How's the weather over there in Tokyo? It's record temperatures over here in London with the previous record of 1911 smashed.

You make some valid points for 'sustainable' whaling. Trouble is if we give catch limits out who gets them, who does the monitoring and how do they do this realistically (an inspector on each and every boat is costly....but I guess the whaling nation could pay for this)?

Do I guess correctly that you've enjoyed a piece of whaling meat over there in Tokyo (assuming you do live there, going by your blog name!). If you don't mind me asking, what line of work do you do?

Nice to have the live debate. :-)

At 8:26 am, Anonymous david@tokyo said...

> How's the weather over there in Tokyo?

Wet, but after the heat in the previous week I'm glad for the cooler weather :-)

> Trouble is if we give catch limits out who gets them,

I'm not really sure exactly how the quota gets divided up (although it seems there was a system for this in the past).
So long as the overall quota is not exceeded, I'm not concerned by who ends up taking the whales. New Zealand (where we both seem to be from) could take the whales and export the meat to Japan for all I care, so long as it's sustainable.

> who does the monitoring and how do they do this realistically

This is all up for discussion at the moment. The IWC page talks about it:
But at the moment what people see as reasonable and necessary measures seems to correlate closely with whether people want to tolerate whaling or to ban it entirely.
Some Norwegian sources have noted that the tactics of some anti-whaling groups appear to be to make whaling legal, but impossible, through the imposition of wads of red tape :-)

> Do I guess correctly that you've enjoyed a piece of whaling meat over there in Tokyo

Well, I've had whale meat in a few different types now - minke whale steak was quite good, blubber was not my bag at all, haven't tried bacon yet, and a restaurant near my apartment has a great minced whale dish. This is all over the period of about 3 years since I arrived in Tokyo - I guess I may have had it about 10 times by now. The money I pay goes into providing research vessels and so forth to further whale conservation efforts. Recently another kiwi, Paul Ensor led a team of whale researchers in the Antarctic on a vessel provided by the Japanese government. The money I paid goes towards offsetting the costs of that, and it makes me feel better than I would giving money to Greenpeace :-)

> If you don't mind me asking, what line of work do you do?

I'm often asked :-)
I'm in IT.
A big interest of mine is sustainable use and the whaling debate in particular is fascinating.

> Nice to have the live debate. :-)

Likewise :-) Just saw your comment pop in before mine, so took the liberty of adding my thoughts ;-)

At 9:35 am, Blogger Matt Burge said...

So you're not working directly or indirectly for the Japanese whaling industry!(?) Not that that matters by the way, if you are. Just would ideally need declaring in such a debate.

Yes, we are both from Kiwiland. I notice from your blog a criticsm of a particular eco-tourism venture based in NZ. Just in general, it does concern me that a lot of Kiwis seem to believe that they look after their 'environment' very well and could never surely have a negative impact upon it. It's naive and misleading!

Have you been in Tokyo long?

At 10:34 am, Anonymous david@tokyo said...

> Not that that matters by the way, if you are.

Absolutely right :-) It's the arguments that count. You can probably tell that I have a bent for IT if you look really hard on my blog though ;-) I'd not choose a giveaway name like "blah@tokyo" if I was a evil depraved Japanese whaler plant, of course!

> It's naive and misleading!

Very much so. It's an image that our government (rightly) pushes to the world to sell us as a tourism destination (and the deep south realyl is magnificent - I'm from Welly, but I'd love to live in the South Island if / when I go back). But this does make kiwis quite complacent about the environment. It's thoroughly annoying that our government whinges about (arguably sustainable) whaling by other nations when we have 73 species of native bird threatened with extinction.

> Have you been in Tokyo long?

As I said, 3 years ;-) Was that a test?! Japan for 4 years in total.

At 10:58 am, Blogger Matt Burge said...

Ahh, yes, '3 years'. Dipping in and out of this while supposedly working, so missed that detail! You're a long-term surviour in Nippon mean feat!

>It's thoroughly annoying that our government whinges about (arguably sustainable) whaling by other nations when we have 73 species of native bird threatened with extinction.

Yes, I also get annoyed with hypocrites when it comes to arguing over environmental issues. We're all in the same leaky boat after all (and longer than 'six months in a leaky boat' :-) )!

At 11:13 am, Blogger Matt Burge said...

Just to add;

Japan doesn't do themselves any favours by buying votes ( ). They should aim to win the debate by proving that 'sustainable' whale populations exist. Yes, I know that they're gathering data but, buying votes shows a desperation for their desired end result... (OK, this is no doubt because IWC votes have be going against them for some time). This is something however the opposition obviously picks up on and Japan risks overshadowing any chance of rational debate about population measurements/data.

At 3:57 pm, Blogger David said...


Actually, living in Japan is very easy for me. I've got a degree in Japanese language, and first started learning the basics as a primary school kid. I guess eating seaweed when I was 7 ensured I developed a culturally open mind from a young age.

On the "buying vote" allegations, again that's a political argument started by the anti-whaling groups, but you can read a collection of quotes of nations accused of selling their souls to Japan here:
If they have all sold their corrupt little souls, you have to admire the consistency of opinion there. Very well organized.

On the other hand, Trinidad and Tobago is not an IWC member and doesn't receive much Japanese aid at all in comparison to other nations - yet you can see some comments that are quite tolerant of whaling from an T&T official here:

And as the Japanese often point out, many nations that receive Japanese aid vote against them at the IWC. Brazil is dead against whaling. Belize also voted against Japan on every measure at the recent meeting in 2006 (to everyone's surprise), despite voting for sustainable use with Japan, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Korea, China and others in the past. It's a pretty ineffective bribe, if that's really what it is.

Then of course, there's people like me. I'm a kiwi, but I'd vote with Japan at the IWC if I had a vote as well. Have I been bribed to say this? Well, you'll have to take my word for it that I haven't.

Actually, my girlfriend is about to depart overseas tomorrow on a Ministry of Foreign Affairs trip to a nation that is a recipient of Japanese ODA to see how Japanese tax funds are being spent there. I'm looking forward to hearing all about it from her when she gets back a week later.

The view I currently have of it is that Japan is able to build friendly relations with various countries based on the goodwill they establish through their development programmes. Where nations have common interests, it makes complete sense for them to support one another in international forums. If that's "bribery", so be it, but I see nothing wrong with such foreign relations at all.

On sustainable whale populations, this argument has actually already been won. I have a quote from former IWC Scientific Committee Chair, Judy Zeh on the top page of my blog at the moment. She has noted that "it's certainly true that if commercial whaling were resumed under the revised management procedure, it could be managed safely."

Argument over. She's not the only Scientific Committee member saying this - the Committee unanimously recommended the RMP to the IWC in the 1990's after it was first completed, and the IWC itself (the politicians) also decided to adopt it.

But winning the debate on this point doesn't mean the whaling nations can get their way. The reality is that while the anti-whaling camp wants everyone to believe that they have scientific reasons against whaling, they don't, but they shamelessly pretend otherwise because they are too ashamed to simply stand up and say "we are voting against this just because we don't think whales should be killed in any circumstances". That's the honest truth behind the opposition. No matter how good the scientific evidence is, hard-core anti-whaling nations like NZ, Australia and the UK are always going to be against whaling, because their opposition is not based on scientific grounds in the first place. NZ's representative to the IWC even stated openly in the early 1990's that NZ does not support whaling under any circumstances because it simply isn't politically acceptable back home. The ICRW says that decisions should be made based on scientific findings, but then who would expect politicians to be able to follow the rules they agreed to :-)

At 4:02 pm, Blogger Stephan Smith said...

If you look at Norway and it’s abstention ratifying the moratorium on whaling, it has spent a lot of time, and resources justifying it’s position on the bases of specific native populations having a tradition of and being dependant on whaling. To support this they have done a lot of research into the lifecycle of the minke whale and the food chain that supports it. There are catch quotas based on statistical analysis on reproductive cycle and population replacement rates; research has been done on making the kill as humane as possible, and they have introduced DNA testing to track the products derived from the catch to combat poaching. This all sounds great and the Norwegian government proclaims the sustainability of this science-base approach.

Whatever the moral argument over the hunting of higher mammals and the method of killing which still takes around 5 minutes – in my opinion much too long and a reason in itself to ban the practice – it is the poaching issue that calls all the science into question. Whale products caught under the quota system that is not used domestically is generally exported to Iceland (contravening a number of international treaties). However, I understand that a significant proportion of the whale meat on sale there is ‘unaccounted for’ based on the DNA tracking system and is poached and probably at higher levels than those accounted for by the science.

And we all know the story of the Patagonian Tooth fish!

At 9:12 pm, Blogger Matt Burge said...

David, with your living in Japan for 4 years, speaking the language and with a Japanese lady who is obviously intelligent, is it not possible that you are at least a little affected in your outlook with the whaling issue by 'emotional involvement'? You're obviously deeply immersed in Japanese culture. Of course that's to be expected and all due respect. I've been there before myself!

Anyway, I get your points regarding the vote rigging allegations. We all know that 'diplomacy' is corruption as fcuk, wherever it functions. OK, yes there is money that ends up doing good as it trickles from rich nations to poor. Amen. I hope your girlfriend is happy with the results on her current recky.

As Stephan points out below, if quotas happen then the monitoring of them must be tight as possible. For once the gates open the market begins to suck in all manner of corrupt bastards.

Should chimpanzees be hunted by locals for bushmeat? Certainly they think so. Westerners, who only see them in zoos think not. I guess sometimes there's no answer!!

At 1:01 am, Blogger David said...


Certainly having an interest in Japanese culture from a young age led me to desire to delve into the details of this particular issue. Had I no interest in Japanese culture, I'd likely still be "anti-whaling" today (the default "common sense" setting) and not here in Japan. It was really the constant media depiction of evil Japanese people wantonly slaughtering whales in a manner remniscent of WWII that got up my nose big time and drove me to look in to this issue for myself. What the New Zealand media told me of "the Japanese" was very very different from my experiences, and kind of disturbing. It didn't seem reasonable that things were as the media was telling me, and I wanted to see the other side of the story.

As for my girlfriend, we have only just "started dating" (or however is fashionable to call it these days) a few weeks back :-) Even if we had been together for 8 years, it wouldn't really count for much - most Japanese people are completely oblivious to the whaling issue, and I have never personally met a Japanese person who knew more about the issue than me (that's not a brag - just illustrating how low on the radar the issue rates here in Japan). I'm not interested in this issue to show off to girls how much I can tolerate Japan's whaling culture!

Ultimately I've held my beliefs about this issue since I was a wee tot back in Victoria University (at least). In time I came to found that it's a tiny part of a much bigger argument about how humans can live sustainably on earth. I support trade in ivory too, for example, and canada's seal hunt.

> if quotas happen then the monitoring of them must be tight as possible.

Certainly, if quotas are set, there must be some monitoring, but must it be "tight as possible"?

Whaling isn't the only business in the world where there are naughty people. Are we going to slam "tight as possible" monitoring systems on everyone, assuming that their industry too is ridden with utter bastards who can't be trusted? Where do we stop?

For me, so long as the system is robust enough, I'm happy.

The good thing with whaling is that under the Revised Management Procedure, catch limits would be extremely conservative in the first instance, as they take into consideration a range of uncertainties when modelling a whale stock in response to catches. The IWC's website page on the RMP lists a range of factors they take into consideration and one of them is "Catastrophes (irregular episodic events when the population is halved)". They've worked to ensure that even if such events were to occur (rather unlikely), the catch limit would still be sustainable.

Thus even if some whaling vessel slipped under the radar and hauled back a few hundred carcasses of whale meat unnoticed (running the risk of the rath of the Japanese government), there is still little chance that such a catch would lead to unsustainable whaling activities.

But hypothetically, what if it did?

Another part of the RMP is also constant monitoring (of whale abundance) - if the population is observed to be behaving differently to what is expected (reducing rapidly in abundance say) then the IWC SC could advise against further hunts until they figure out what was going on. The RMP automatically phases out catch limits if ongoing abundance estimates are not performed.

Compared with the old days when everyone was rapaciously whaling for oil with little monitoring, and today where the only demand is for whale meat and anti-whaling groups monitoring these activities just waiting for something to complain about, I'm ultra confident that the whaling is able to be managed sustainably, without the depletion of stocks that we saw in the distant past.

> I guess sometimes there's no answer!!

Why should bushmeat hunting locals need to justify their lifestyles to Westerners anyway? Westerners, who often see nature as a zoo, aren't exactly the picture of sustainable living!


Hello :-)
I think the 5 minutes you talk about is maybe meant to be a average time (I'm not sure if it isn't less than 5 minutes actually). Many whales die instantaneously, and some take longer. I don't have a great problem with this either. Western people from agricultural backgrounds like to focus in on the Time-To-Death statistics for whaling, but I believe it's important to focus on the entire life of the animal.

Given a choice, I'd rather be a free range whale (running the 0.2% chance of taking an explosive penthrite harpoon in the head and in a bad case taking several minutes to die when that day comes), than a battery chicken, a penned up pig, or a barnyard cow. I think the whales have a good time of it from us humans, overall. I think, were the whales smart enough to tell us, most of them would prefer a harpoon to a pack of killer whales, as well :-)

At 8:35 pm, Blogger Keith Scott said...

It's been a fascinating debate on the subject and sorry not to have contributed earlier. I tried to make the original blog as neutral as possible because I'm not sure where I stand on the issue. Personally I am a vegetarian because I decided I couldn't kill a living animal for food (I might change that position if I was starving) and so instinctively am aganst the killing of animals with some of the largest brains on the planet. We don't really know what they think or how traumatic it is for those left. Maybe it is not that much.
As for the science some whale species are definitely still in need of protection (particularly the Blue, the Bowhead, the Humpbank and the Right). Other perhaps not so but I would have thought quotas would still be needed.
Intriguingly a MORI opinion poll in 1999 on Japanese views to whaling is said to have found that 61% had not eaten whale meat since childhood, only 2% strongly supported the industry and 8% tended to support Japanese whaling. Is this correct?

At 8:53 am, Blogger Stephan Smith said...

The probability of being predated upon as part of the natural food cycle in any unit of time for any individual whale is not changed by human hunting activities (unless we reduce the hunter species too). Our activities just increase the overall probability of an individuals’ death during that time, it’s not a choice of the lesser of two evils.

The official Norwegian line on the killing methods used in Minke Whale hunting is that those around 90 per cent of the animals lose consciousness or die instantaneously. However, it acknowledges that around 10 per cent of the animals survive the first strike and must be killed by another shot or by a rifle shot to the head. Efforts are being made to reduce this percentage (Greenpeace gives 5 minutes as that average time to death). It states that:

‘This situation is a clear improvement from the days when cold harpoons were used, and less than 20 per cent of the animals were killed rapidly. The use of grenade harpoons was made obligatory in 1984. A new and improved grenade harpoon has since been developed, and has been in use since 2000.’

However, the sensitivity of the issue, and need to justify the methods used are revealed in the following statements:

‘Every year, before the harvesting season begins, all gunners must attend a course on shooting and killing. In addition, all gunners must pass an obligatory shooting test using both a harpoon gun and a rifle. Each whaling vessel carries an inspector on board during the hunt. The inspectors report directly to the fisheries authorities.’


‘The methods used by Norwegian whalers today for killing Minke whales are probably the most strictly monitored and best registered methods used in any big-game hunting in the world. The methods used in Norwegian whaling also compare favourably to those used for livestock in slaughterhouses.’

It would seem that to achieve such ‘good’ kill outcomes requires highly developed procedures and strict monitoring; not something that is likely if the moratorium is lifted and the inevitable poaching ensues.


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