Why we should allow whaling

Sustainability Party Taboos; a bad strategy for environmentalists

We have no mandate to impose recently acquired cultural taboos on the Japanese people. Since when is it OK to tell other countries what they can and cannot eat?

The continued effort to prevent commercial whaling is a strategic blunder for the environmental movement. It represents a victory of emotional response over practical considerations and of 'cute and cuddly' over sustainability.

One of my first forays into Australian politics was the promotion of marine parks as fisheries management tools. This is something that I am still heavily involved with. One of the common criticisms I heard was that marine parks were a 'foot in the door' for the 'greenies.' This even came from people who claimed to be 'the real environmentalists.' It came across as a rather absurd argument. Sure there are some animal liberationists who want to ban recreational fishing, but to assume they could have any political power over fishermen is just ridiculous. Furthermore to base your political strategy around fear of such an unlikely outcome is more likely to make it come true. If you refuse to self regulate then someone else will take the opportunity to do it for you next time there is a crisis.

Well, that's what the commercial whaling industry did. They formed the IWC to manage commercial whaling in a sustainable manner and it was promptly taken over by people who have no interest at all in sustainable harvests. All they will be satisfied with is a complete ban on commercial whaling. Occasionally you will hear lip service given to sustainability, but usually with the insistence that any whaling is inherently unsustainable. Such assertions are never backed up with evidence.

Whales are not the only example of emotional appeal winning over common sense. For a long time it was nearly impossible to purchase kangaroo meat in the supermarket. This came about through protests a number of years ago when it first hit the shelves. This may not seem as bad as using the law to impose your will, but the outcome was far worse for our environment. Destroying the kangaroo meat industry reinforces the beef industry in Australia, which does enormous ecological damage. Cattle just aren't suited to our fragile soils. Their hard hooves turn it to dust and they rip grass out by the roots. They destroy fragile riparian ecosystems. They emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Fortunately, kangaroo meat is making it's way back onto the shelves, but it is still illegal to import it into California. Apparently several decades ago a senator's wife heard from a friend that kangaroos are endangered, and insisted that her husband pass a law banning the importation of kangaroo meat. Of course, she had the support of local environmentalists. Note that the arguments used against the whale harvest are identical to those used against the kangaroo harvest and have lead many Australians to support California's kangaroo ban.

If you think that Australia is now more sensible in it's handling of native animals, think again. It is still illegal to kill brushtail possums. Brushtail possums are four times as dense in the urban environment as they are in the wild. They are basically native rats, except that people tolerate and even encourage them through feeding. They carry several nasty diseases. For example they are the principle carriers of Ross River Fever, with something like 70% of them testing positive. They damage ceilings. They are carnivorous and eat small animals and bird eggs. Combine this with the introduction of cats and aggressive bird species from overseas (helped along by the urban environment) and it is no wonder that avian biodiversity is so low in the suburbs. Every opportunity to sustainably harvest a wild source of food that we pass up reinforces the role of commercial agriculture (chemicals, hormones, transport, fossil fuels) in our lives.

Anyway, back to the whales. While environmentalists continue to show, through successful political campaigns, that they will not stop at sustainability and that environmentalism is on a continuum with animal rights, the movement will continue to instill fear in average Australians. Even to the extent that everyday Australians will oppose any environmental agenda on principle regardless of whether it harms themselves. I've seen this with my own eyes. It is irrational and frustrating, just like a complete ban on commercial whaling.

Embarrassing ourselves internationally

It is easy to get the impression from the local media that Australia is at the forefront of a global movement to ban whaling forever, making a name for ourselves as a progressive modern country. In fact we are making fools of ourselves on the international stage. The coalition would not touch the whaling issue. The Rudd government has spent a truckload of money to reach a critical breakthrough, finally getting the proof it needs that [SHOCK, HORROR!] Japan is killing whales in the southern Ocean. Feeling silly yet?

The strong local mood has been manufactured by Greenpeace through advertising. There is nothing really sinister there. They just discovered that it is the easiest way to our hip pockets. Never mind that it takes advantage of lingering racism to broaden the movement far beyond animal rights groups. Greenpeace does not confront us with images of mulesed sheep, tortured baby cows or pigs in a metal straightjacket because that is something white people do. We would stop handing over money if Greenpeace made us feel uncomfortable about what we choose to eat or wear. Likewise, Greenpeace does not throw whaling in the face of Europeans, even though they capture far more whales than Japan without even bothering to find a loophole in IWC regulations.

So what about the global movement? Are we leaders, or are we ideological stragglers clinging on to a genuine sustainability issue, oblivious to the fact it has been hijacked by clever marketing ploys and animal rights activists? These activists frequently equate eating meat with murder, going as far as suggesting the same punishment under law. How do other countries view the situation? Many have more to fear that we will arbitrarily declare their food unkosher and start an unnecessary campaign against them. Would say, the Indians get hot under the collar over whaling? It’s hard to imagine, given that they have never tried to impose their taboo on beef on the rest of the world. What about the Koreans? Or do they just want ‘morally superior’ westerners to stop harassing them for eating dog? Likewise the Chinese would be happy for us to stop targeting their mink industry. Africans? A continent where people are still starving could hardly object to the Japanese eating meat. In fact, why not send them some whale meat? What about other western countries? Let’s try Canada. Would they object to whaling, or would the hypocrisy be a bit too much to bear? There is a US-led boycott campaign targeting all Canadian products because they dare to harvest animals that aren’t traditional European fodder. Of course, Australians are oblivious to that sort of self awareness.

Wake up Australia. We do not have the moral high ground. We are just embarrassing ourselves in front of the world. If you really care about Kevin Rudd, don’t put him in the position of having to tell the Japanese we oppose whaling and are sending the Navy after them - but don’t worry because we won’t actually do anything. Those who actually work on the international stage are fully aware of our own hypocrisy but are not in a position to confront us with it, either because they seek our votes or they seek our donations. So let’s try thinking for ourselves instead.

PETA's view

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have recently spoken out in support of the whale harvest and acknowledged that wild harvests such as this involve far less animal cruelty than factory farming.

Malcolm Turnbull's antics

Federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull mocked and belittled Japanese delegate Akira Nakamae after the last IWC meeting, accusing him of "spitting the dummy". This is a cheap political stunt and far from an accurate description of the delegate's behaviour. Someone so ignorant and culturally insensitive should not be representing Australia or negotiating on our behalf. Mr Turnbull went on to call for 'constructive' interaction with Japan on the whaling issue and insisted we had a good relationship. Japan threatened to withdraw from the IWC.

Implications for other wild stocks

Japan participates in many other harvests of wild animals in international waters, most notably of tuna and billfish. Many of these harvests have serious sustainability issues. Japan recently admitted to exceeding its southern bluefin tuna quota over the past 20 years. They may have ‘stolen’ an extra 250000 tonnes, worth more than AU$10billion, from the international community. They have had their quota halved for five years and have also accepted cuts to their atlantic bluefin quota. Clearly, a stronger international regulatory body is needed to monitor the harvest and enforce quotas for tuna, billfish and other high value open ocean fish. This is unlikely to happen if Japan is bitter about western nations and animal liberation groups using the IWC to impose foreign cultural values on the Japanese people. A rational approach to whaling from a sustainability perspective would likely see Japan come to the negotiating table on other far more urgent issues. This could even be negotiated in exchange for whaling rights.

Can the whale harvest be managed effectively?

Whales could be an easy species to overharvest. The value of each individual animal is high compared to the cost of capture. Why is it then that an international moratorium on whaling between so many disparate nations was so easy to achieve, whereas many fish stocks have collapsed, apparently beyond recovery, while governments still wrangle over catch quotas? The answer is that what makes the whales so easy to capture also makes them easy to manage. It would be even easier for a farmer to overharvest his herd of cattle, yet farmers do not do this. Likewise, compared to fish, whale stocks are easier to manage because:

  • whales are not fish – they must surface to breathe
  • whales are larger
  • there are fewer of them
  • whales follow regular, predictable migratory routes
  • there is already an industry observing whales that has no interest in harvesting them
  • it is very difficult to hide illegal whaling
The only possible impediment to the effective management of the whale harvest is the collapse of the IWC, which is likely to happen if western nations continue to oppose whaling on ideological grounds. The IWC only has authority while countries such as Japan continue to participate voluntarily. If the IWC imposes unjust rules that are outside of its mandate, Japan will have a strong incentive and a reasonable justification for leaving the IWC.

How much whaling is sustainable?

It's hard to tell how much whaling is sustainable, but if the population of a species continues to rise despite whaling (as is currently the case) then you can be sure that it is sustainable. Maybe they could get more whales in the long run if they let the population continue to rise for a few more years, but surely we can leave those decisions to the whaling industry, given that they have shown their ability to self regulate by setting up the IWC.

Whale harvest for 2005/06:

Nation Dates Fin Sperm Sei Brydes Minke Total
Iceland July-Aug05 0 0 0 0 39 39
Japan (pelagic) May-Aug05 0 5 100 50 101 256
Japan (coastal) Apr-Oct05 0 0 0 0 121 121
Japan (pelagic) Dec05-Mar06 10 0 0 0 856 866
Total   10 5 100 50 1117 1282

Note that the annual European catch (including Faeroe Islands - Denmark, Norway and Iceland) is roughly 1400 whales per year. The above table is from IWC data and refers only to catches taken under 'scientific' permits. Organisations such as Greenpeace focus on Japan because whaling is a big fundraiser and headline grabber in Australia. Taking on European whalers would cost them funds.

Where to from here?

The ‘scientific’ whaling program should be abolished and a commercial harvest of the same number of whales allowed. Rather than handing out quotas, harvest rights should be auctioned off on an annual basis. The income from this auction should be used by the IWC to enforce quotas, monitor stocks and conduct research. Any excess funds should be allocated to research, monitoring and quota enforcement for other marine harvests in international waters, such as tuna and billfish. Any adjustment of quotas should be based on the precautionary principle and scientific advice. Whale species whose numbers are still well below their potential should have low quotas set, such that the annual increase in whale numbers is still significantly more than the annual catch.

Hollow arguments

Below is a list of the ‘hollow’ arguments that have been presented on our forum for why we should ban the harvest of Minke whales and why we should be confident the argument won’t be extended to lots of other animals. Most of them are red herrings (ie irrelevant points). Some additional fallacies are listed afterwards. Most of the arguments centre around cruelty and animal intelligence. Hopefully I have included all of the arguments made.

1) We should ban whaling because whaling is not central to Japanese culture.
2) We should ban whaling because the Japanese would not starve if they stopped whaling.
3) We should ban whaling because whaling is a smaller industry than beef, pigs, fishing etc.
4) We should ban whaling because you can’t group whaling together with other harvests to form a really big group (eg fishing) that sounds too difficult to get rid of.
5) We should ban whaling because the whaling industry is smaller than it used to be.
6) We should ban whaling because the whaling industry is (or was) bigger than it was prior to WWII.
7) We should ban whaling because whaling is done for different reasons than it was historically (oil).
8) We should ban whaling because whales were not bred for harvest.
9) We should ban whaling because whales were overharvested in the past (ie ‘they’ can’t be trusted).
10) We should ban whaling because killer whales appear to be smarter than pigs.
11) We should ban whaling because we can’t be certain that Minke whales are not smarter than pigs.
12) We should ban whaling because killing a whale is no different to killing a human.
13) We should ban whaling because killing a whale takes a while.
14) We should ban whaling because lots of people think whaling is wrong.
15) We should ban whaling because the IWC has banned whaling.
16) We should ban whaling because whaling is conducted via a loophole in the IWC laws.
17) We should ban whaling because the Japanese subsidise whaling
18) We should ban whaling because whale watching is valuable
19) We should ban whaling because the Japanese are putting diplomatic pressure on small nations to lift the ban.
20) We should ban whaling because the Japanese are being recalcitrant in not bowing to international pressure.
21) We should ban whaling because politeness in the face atrocity is a form of complicity.
22) We should ban whaling because evolution is not a scientific theory.
23) We should ban whaling because freediver has no credibility.
24) We should ban whaling because of marine parks.
25) We should ban whaling because there is no evidence a cruelty based ban on whaling would lead to a similar ban on other harvests.

1, 2: Cultural imperialism. The Japanese do not have to justify whaling to us. We have to justify imposing our recently acquired cultural taboos on them. To some extent all the claims above involve cultural imperialism, in that they assume the Japanese must justify freedom from our cultural taboos.

1,2,3,4,5,7: Focus on the ability to ban whaling, not whether we should ban whaling.

3,4,5,6: The magnitude of the industry is irrelevant to the animal cruelty argument.

8: Breeding an animal for harvest does not justify killing it any more than killing a wild animal. Sustainable wild harvests have far less impact on the environment than commercial agriculture, so this argument actually works in favour of whaling..

9: many other species have been overharvested in the past but have now recovered and are managed sustainably.

10,11: Measurements of animal intelligence are not objective. They are entirely subjective and anthropocentric. That is, they centre around an animal’s tendency to mimic proxies for human intelligence or it’s ability to perform circus tricks on cue.

13: It doesn’t take as long as it takes many fish, turtles etc to die on longlines. Recreational fishermen can take longer to land large fish.

14,15,16: Argumentum ad populum and appeal to an irrelevant authority. Just because something is banned does not mean it should be banned. The IWC ban has no more authority on whether the ban is right than the loophole that allows whaling to continue. The original IWC ban was based on sustainability, but is now being held onto for cultural reasons (ie, our recently acquired taboo on killing whales).

17, 18: the economic issues are not a justification for banning whaling. They are only a justification for correcting the economic problems. Whaling and whale watching are not mutually exclusive, any more than scuba diving and fishing are mutually exclusive. We don’t have to ban fishing so people can go scuba diving, just as we don’t have to ban farming because it is subsidised.

19: Australia does the same.

19,20,21: Circular arguments. They assume the ban is justified in the first place then interpret actions on that assumption to reinforce the need for the ban.

22,23,24: Argumentum ad hominem

25: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Plus, the fact that there is arguably already a cruelty based ban on whaling is evidence that there will be attempts to ban other harvests, if the whaling ban issue is fully resolved. Many powerful organisations such as PETA are already calling for a complete ban on recreational fishing on animal cruelty grounds. They are pouring lots of funds into a long term strategy of 'indoctrinating' children to see fishing as equivalent to torturing your pet dog. Many non-food based hunts, such as fox hunting in the UK, have also been banned recently. The whole point of the argument against banning whaling on cruelty grounds is that it would be the first case of banning a harvest for food. It would set a precedent. You do not need direct evidence to expect a precedent to set a precedent. See the article about crocodiles, possums, sharks, groper and kangaroos below for more evidence.

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Other species

Westerners, especially Australians and Americans, have a curious habit of adopting legal bans as cultural taboos. Whaling is just the most absurd of many. Not only did we adopt an irrational taboo, we tried to impose it upon far more rational societies. We make fools of ourselves on the international stage, huffing and puffing our moral superiority, oblivious to the fact that our delusions of high ground are nothing more than cultural imperialism. Howard and Rudd were forced to face up to the Japanese leader and squirm about the idiocy of the people they represent, then go home and talk up their ‘real action’ on whaling. Many new animal libbers think they are safe in opposing whaling because it will never affect them. Think again.

Consider the case of crocodiles. Once overharvested, they are quickly recovering with bans on harvest. Unfortunately, crocodiles are territorial. As the populations climb in remote areas, the smaller ones are forced into small suburban creeks, out to sea and onto beaches. As they recover more, even very large crocodiles are forced into conflict with humans. They take pets from people’s backyards. They take people camping near beaches. Recently, residents of a quiet Cairns suburb became very concerned when a large crocodile took up residence. Crocodiles stalk their prey. They watch it over many days, picking up patterns of behaviour, looking for the perfect time to strike. All that separated resident’s front gates from this particular croc was a quiet suburban back street. Every day it would sun itself on the grass, watching housewives hang the laundry, watching pets come down for a drink, watching children walk to school, watching visually impaired old ladies make their way slowly to the shops, watching drunken youths stagger home from parties. Choking in red tape, authorities did nothing. When a few local lads took it upon themselves to beat the maneater to death, they were treated as criminals, even though to other locals they were heroes. If the croc had taken a schoolkid, it would have been an unfortunate, unforseeable accident. Wake up Australia.

Consider kangaroos. California has banned them. The state with perhaps the world’s largest and cruelest factory farming industry, a state with millions of obese people, banned sustainably harvested, organic, free range, low fat meat in favour of subsidised big macs. The ban was supposedly based on sustainability, though it was horribly misinformed. At least the Californians have realised their mistake and have almost removed the ban. Guess who launched a massive campaign to oppose this move? It was the animal libbers. But, I hear you say, that’s ignorant Americans for you. They wouldn’t have a clue. Yet it is only very recently that kangaroo started appearing beside steak on the supermarket shelves. Why? Because animal libbers called boycotts on the shops that did sell it. Enough Australians got swept up in the emotion, failing to consider how destructive cattle are to our fragile environment.

Consider great white sharks. They were also overharvested once. Now they are recovering. They are also maneaters and people do get taken by them. The debate over what to do with them is hamstrung by irrational people crying ‘it’s wrong to eat these sharks’ while tucking into their fish and chips. How far will we let them recover before allowing some kind of harvest to begin again? Will swimming at the Gold Coast one day be too dangerous because of great whites patrolling the beaches and crocodiles lurking in the backwaters (as they were when Europeans first arrived)?

Should the shark die?

Consider the grey nurse shark. What if it turns out that there is not 400 but 40000 of them? What if in a few decades there are 4 million of them and you can’t land a fish in some places because the water is thick with hungry grey nurses. It may never happen, but if it did, would grey nurses be forever off our menu because we were wise enough to protect them for future generations?

Consider brushtail possums. These were never under threat. They have always been a pest. Brushtail possums are four times as dense in the urban environment as they are in the wild. They are basically native rats, except that people tolerate and even encourage them through feeding. They carry several nasty diseases. For example they are the principle carriers of Ross River Fever, with something like 70% of them testing positive. They damage ceilings. They are carnivorous and eat small animals and bird eggs. Combine this with the introduction of cats and aggressive bird species from overseas (helped along by the urban environment) and it is no wonder that avian biodiversity is so low in the suburbs. Every opportunity to sustainably harvest a wild source of food that we pass up reinforces the role of commercial agriculture (chemicals, hormones, transport, fossil fuels) in our lives. Possums add to this by devouring tomatoes and other plants in our backyards. It’s a chemical company’s dream companion, an animal that people love that forces them to be completely dependent on farmers who kill everything in their path and create chemically enforced monocultures. Fortunately some cafe’s in Brisbane and other cities now sell a hearty meal of possum. Let’s hope we follow the example set by kangaroos, not the example some are trying to set with whales.

Consider the Blue Groper. It is illegal to take them by hand spear in NSW, but you can take them on a line. These large colourful fish are everywhere and they are not afraid of people. Consequently, it is also 'wrong' to spear them. Even spearfishermen in NSW react badly to the suggestion that the rules should be changed once there are plenty of marine parks established. The fish are territorial and would receive more than enough protection in marine parks. There would be plenty to keep the scuba divers happy. If you picked any other fish and arbitrarily declared it off limits to one group of fishermen, they would be up in arms.

Sustainable wild harvests have far less ecological impact than intensive farming. They do not require modification of the landscape or the artificial recreation of entire food chains (eg, chopping down trees to grow grain to feed cattle, or trawling up fish to feed penned tuna). They are not reliant on chemically enforced monoculture. The animals are free range and comparably chemical and hormone free. We should take advantage of every viable opportunity to harvest wild food sustainably rather than relying on commercial agriculture. We should not arbitrarily ban the consumption of certain animals for cultural or emotional reasons.

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