Whales and Morality

18 June 2003

Whales and Morality

By Gwynne Dyer

“At some point we are confident we will overturn the (whaling) moratorium. It is becoming a reality,” said Joji Morishita, a member of Japan`s huge delegation to the annual morality play that the International Whaling Commission`s meetings have become. But it wasn`t a reality yet at this week`s meeting in Berlin: in the key votes, the IWC members voted 25-20 to protect endangered species of whales indefinitely, and defeated a Japanese proposal to loosen the total ban on whaling in the Antarctic Ocean sanctuary.

On the other hand, proposals to create new no-whaling sanctuaries in the South Pacific (backed by the big local powers, Australia and New Zealand) and the South Atlantic (likewise supported by the major local powers, Brazil and Argentina), were blocked by the pro-whaling group. The leaders of this group, Japan and Norway, were once big whaling nations, but most of their allies were small, poor countries that never had a whaling industry. In some cases, like Mongolia, they don`t even have a seacoast.

What they do have in common is a large appetite for Japanese development aid. Every year since the late 90s a few unlikely new members have paid their dues and joined the IWC. They are mostly from the Caribbean — St. Lucia, Belize, St. Kitt`s and Nevis, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica — with some outlying co-conspirators like Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Palau. They all seem extraordinarily keen on whaling for people who have never done it.

This year`s delegate from Dominica, Lloyd Pascal, sounded like a latter-day Captain Ahab as he condemned the proposed new whale sanctuaries as “the closing of the earth`s oceans for the selfish motives of the rich and famous…to create a paradise of their tourism at the expense of hunger and poverty.” Yet there is no whaling industry in Dominica, and the island makes a lot of money from whale-watching tourism.

Dominica`s environment minister, Atherton Martin, resigned in 2000 in protest against his country`s prostitution of its dignity in return for Japanese aid. “There`s a tendency by Japan to exploit a desperate situation in the Caribbean by purchasing support for voting at the IWC,” Martin explained afterwards.

It’s disgraceful, of course — but how did the anti-whaling lobby get the ban on whaling accepted by the IWC in 1986 in the first place? By packing the membership with non-whaling countries that shared their views.

The currency on the pro-whaling side is more likely to be favours than outright bribes, but does anybody really believe that San Marino, a mountain-top city-state entirely surrounded by Italy, recently joined the IWC in response to overwhelming popular demand?

Both sides are playing the numbers game, even if the Japanese tactics for getting their numbers up are more cynical. (A couple of years ago Masayuki Komatsu, international director of Japan’s fisheries agency, said on Australian radio that he saw “nothing wrong” with using development aid to buy votes on the IWC.) And both sides are angry and bitter — largely because neither side is being honest about its true motives for waging this struggle.

It`s not really about conservation. Some whale species, like the fin whales and the blue whales, the largest animals who ever lived, have never recovered from the slaughter of the 19th and 20th century and will need strict protection indefinitely. (Fin whales are down from an estimated pre-whaling population of 700,000 to around 50,000, and blue whales from 275,000 to a mere 5,000) Others, like the sperm whales and minke whales, have populations big and stable enough to withstand limited whaling.

But the anti-whaling lobby simply cannot bear to see these large, beautiful and seemingly very intelligent creatures killed for food. The intelligence is the key: many people have a strong emotional conviction that while killing animals to eat them is justifiable, we should not kill anything that too closely resembles ourselves — and whales’ apparent intelligence puts them within that charmed circle. This attitude, needless to say, drives the Japanese and the Norwegians to frustration and fury.

On the other hand, their own position is not exactly hyper-rational, either. The limited amount of whaling that the Norwegians do in defiance of the moratorium (quite legally, since Norway entered a reservation when the ban was first introduced in 1986) is merely a disguised subsidy to coastal communities: Norwegians don’t eat whale-meat any more, and the stuff was just piling up in cold storage until they started exporting it to Japan.

The 550 whales a year that Japan kills in the name of ‘scientific research’ end up in restaurants, but 61 percent of Japanese have not tasted whale-meat since childhood if at all. “Japan doesn’t have a whaling industry any more, and Japanese don’t have an appetite for whale-meat,” said Motoji Nagasawa of Greenpeace Japan. “It is the pride of the bureaucrats. They just don’t like to be seen to lose.”

That about sums up the annual IWC ritual: passionate emotion on one side, bureaucratic stubbornness on the other. And meanwhile the biggest real threat to the welfare of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) is fishing nets, in which some 300,000 are estimated to die each year.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (This year’s…afterwards”)