Oceans: Whaling Is a Dying Business

By Don Walsh

Today’s global population of whales (cetaceans) is estimated at 1.7 million, including 88 species within that. Considering the difficulties of counting, as well as the nature of the whaling industry, this number could be off by as much as 50 percent.

After two centuries of extensive harvesting, three species are “critically endangered,” seven “endangered” species, and six “vulnerable.” In the 20th century alone, nearly 3 million whales were harvested.

The taking of whales by humans began about 3,000 B.C., although harvests had little impact on whale populations until about the 17th century, when whaling evolved into a major global commercial enterprise. The peak of global whaling occurred within the last 300 years, when increasingly efficient catching and processing methods resulted in the killing of millions of whales. When a geographic region was depleted, the whalers simply moved to another: this is how the major North Atlantic whaling operations eventually ended up in the Antarctic.

By the mid-1930s, whale products were replaced largely by man-made equivalents. There were some special circumstances that kept whaling viable. For example, in postwar Japan, food supplies were critically limited, so the resumption of large-scale whaling was encouraged to provide badly needed protein for the people.

In the postwar years, scientific knowledge, advanced technology detection systems, and huge seagoing processing factory ships put unsustainable pressure on several species. In 1946, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded to advise governments on catch quotas for the commercially valuable species, promote scientific research on marine mammals, and collect catch statistics. IWC-adhering agreements have the status of treaties and the ability to impose fines on member states.

The IWC has defined three categories of whaling: subsistence, commercial, and scientific. Subsistence harvesting is for native peoples who depend on whales as a primary source of nutrition. Commercial whaling defines activities producing whale products for global markets. Scientific whaling is the taking of a very limited number of a species for the purposes of scientific study. While the utility of this may be debatable, it is permitted as a means to increase cetacean understanding.

In 1986, the IWC declared a moratorium on commercial whaling. This has been successful to some extent, as some endangered species are recovering. Two nations, however, objected: Norway and Iceland, which continue the practice. The Japanese received permission for scientific whaling, but their harvest is essentially a commercial operation thinly veiled as marine mammal research.

Today, whaling is no longer a viable industry. In 2016, the sole whaling company in Iceland was going out of business. The heavily subsidized Norwegian whaling industry continues but with decreasing catches. Almost all of the meat is exported to Japan, as most Norwegians do not care for it.

The Japanese commercial whaling industry operates under the guise of “scientific whaling,” although the national taste for whale meat is rapidly decreasing. Despite government subsidies ($50 million/year) and their promotion of consumption, the annual use today is only 1 percent of its peak in the 1960s. A 2006 poll found that 95 percent of Japanese people rarely or never eat whale meat.

While the global whaling industry is dying because of natural market forces, in its place whale watching has become a large and rapidly growing tourist activity. The estimated annual global revenue is nearly $3 billion and is growing about 10 percent each year—compared to the $31 million annual income of the global whaling industry. Whale tourism attracts more than 18 million viewers annually and creates thousands of new jobs, showing that you can make much more money with live whales than dead ones.

MR. WALSH, a marine consultant, is a retired naval officer and oceanographer. In 1960, he was one of the first two men to reach the deepest point in the ocean—Challenger Deep—on board the submersible Trieste .




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