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All Whaling Must End!

For years, there has been a huge public outcry by opponents of whaling by Japan and a few other countries. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been tirelessly working to prevent Japanese whaling fleets from continuing their cruel & unending slaughter of these majestic creatures. The following article, by David McMillan, looks deeper into the whaling industry and what organizations like Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace are doing to bring an end to the carnage.
All Whaling Must End

In February 2011, the Japanese whaling fleet fled the Southern Oceanic Whale Sanctuary, citing their fear of the aggressive interventions of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society  ( Since 1977, when it was founded by Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd has never injured or harmed anyone, which makes the Japanese position seem deliberately alarmist. Sea Shepherds do use obstructionist tactics, throw stink bombs and try to hamper whaling ships as much as they can; their effects are largely theatrical and they are necessary agitators shining a light on what they say is illegal whaling in the Antarctic. They are also busy around the globe impeding poachers, pirates and unethical fishing (for example: longline fishing) on behalf of all marine life.

‘Operation No Compromise’ has been Sea Shepherd’s most successful campaign to date, and is whole-heartedly celebrated by the people of Australia, and implicitly supported by the Australian government. Australia itself was once a whaling nation, but the culture has changed to such an extent that there are now laws in place to prevent whale watchers from approaching too close to migrating whales. Happily, these laws don’t prevent curious whales from approaching whale watchers. The visceral aversion to whaling seems to betoken a spiritual or a mystical relationship between humans and whales. The thought that the very same whales we meet off the east coast of Australia are fated to be harpooned by Japanese whalers is spiritually unendurable.

Sea Shepherd Communications Officer and animal rights activist Tod Emko sums up this feeling when he says, ‘I reckon that absolutely nothing in life can prepare you for seeing [a whale] in person and once you see one you will do anything you can in your human power to keep them alive.’ Paul von Hartmann, posting online to refute a frighteningly prevalent attitude that humanity has the right to kill whales for profit and/or knowledge, writes angrily, ‘Anyone who kills a whale or dolphin is committing an evolutionary atrocity that humans are incapable of comprehending. Each individual animal is the perfect product of an inconceivable span of time and truly miraculous natural processes.’ Sharks also fit this ancient profile. Whales, sharks and dolphins have played significant roles in the development of life on Earth. We have no way of fully understanding them, and we have no way of predicting the devastating ecological consequences of cutting the continuity of marine life cycles. Biologist Hal Whitehead, who believes whales to be moral, highly social, tactile and interpersonal creatures, cautions that we must not mistake the little we know of whale culture and whale communication for the totality. For instance, the clicking of sperm whales and the songs of humpback whales may be (to us) the most obvious of the ways whales communicate with each other, but ‘that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily the most important’ to the whales themselves.

The Japanese whaling industry (represented by the Japanese government) argues that its slaughter of whales is lawful. They are probably correct, as far as the law goes, which is not far enough. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) famously declared a moratorium on commercial whaling; however, it allowed the continuation of whaling under two circumstances: what it called aboriginal-subsistence and scientific research. I will not, in this essay, investigate the first exception, except to briefly concur with the ‘No Compromise’ philosophy of Sea Shepherd, that human beings are human beings, and should stop killing whales. The Japanese could not possibly hide behind the aboriginal-subsistence clause, because their modern whaling industry is an industrialised, long-range one. Indeed, in its current form it can be traced back to General Douglas Macarthur, the grandfather of modern Japanese whaling. Following the Second World War, Macarthur authorised the outfitting of the first Nishin Maru vessel for whaling in the Antarctic. As administrator and secular Emperor of a defeated Japan, Macarthur saw whale meat as a way to fend off famine; the huge profits from whale oil surely can’t have been lost on him either.

Which leaves scientific research.

Much skepticism is directed at the Japanese argument that their operation is scientific in nature. I believe that whether it is or not is immaterial, and that we should be asking ourselves why we support this distinction between one type of murder and another. Helicopter TV cameras have recorded the surreal and horrifying spectacle of whalers on Japanese ships wading through bloody whale remains holding up huge signs for the cameras which read, in English, ‘We’re studying whale migration’ or ‘We’re weighing stomach contents’ or ‘collecting tissue samples’. In all likelihood, the men holding these signs can’t read them. These messages are meant for us, in the Western technocracies, for whom science is a fiercely competitive religious creed, and for whom the words ‘scientific research’ hold some sort of reverenced magic. We can scoff that what they’re doing is not really scientific research, and yet it begs the question: why on Earth did the IWC provide this loophole in the 1986 Moratorium in the first place?

I reject any ethical distinction between commercial whaling and whaling for scientific research. ‘Scientific research’ covers a multitude of cruelties perpetrated against animals in captivity and in the wild in the name of increasing human knowledge. Millions of animals are purposely bred to suffer and die in laboratory cages for the purposes of scientific research. The hopelessly deluded idea that Nature is an open book for us to read (and that torturing stressed animals to death will teach us anything useful) is as misguided as the view that natural resources are there for us to plunder. Both of these rights are self-given and not grounded in any sort of balancing obligation to selfless stewardship of the planet (which ironically is the only means to save our own species).

The educational ideal of bio-literacy (often presented in conjunction with notions of bio-diversity) is sometimes characterised as the first step towards empathy, as if our compulsion to catalogue and collect equates with true wisdom. There is to me no demonstrable connection between knowing more about a species and a compassionate attitude towards that species. From reading Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, it seems whalers (and by extension, hunters) need to develop a sophisticated knowledge of their prey, its emotional life and habits; in Melville’s story, bio-literacy leads to hatred as easily or more easily as it leads to empathy. Or it might be better phrased that empathy need not entail a compassionate or sympathetic component. Consider also Captain James Cook’s expedition to the Southern Seas in the 1770s. The subsequent illustrated reports of his naturalists were avidly studied by whalers who had depleted the Northern oceans. Armed with this scientific research, they headed south. The Japanese whalers have also studied their quarry. In Antarctica, they know to first harpoon the calf, because the mother will not abandon it. She can then be killed easily, two dead whales for the effort of one. The U.S. Navy knows that its sonar kills some whales, damages marine life and impairs the hearing (crucial for survival) of thousands of whales per year. Taking the Navy’s own scientific research and findings to the U.S. High Court, the Natural Resources Defense Council ( has not been able to stop Navy sonar activities in known whale habitats.

The IWC’s ‘moratorium on commercial whaling’ has become such a catch-phrase that it would be easy to mistake the IWC for an environmental organisation. It is not, and can probably best be pictured as a purely political body subject to the political currents of the time. It was originally intended as a regulatory aid to an over-zealous whaling industry, and the quotas it suggested were not designed to protect whales but rather the whaling industry, which was annihilating whale populations and driving species to the point of extinction. The 1986 Moratorium was a victory for conservationists and showed that the general public would in this case no longer tolerate the cruel destruction of sentient beings for the sake of greed. Non-violent human-whale interaction and organisations like Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace had made whaling a highly political issue.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that a moratorium is a temporary pause. Further, the IWC is a voluntary organisation – its laws are not binding unless its member nations agree with them. Iceland and Norway have re-commenced commercial whaling in recent years and there is a real danger that the next IWC meeting (being held in Norway in June) will water down and undermine the Moratorium. The political logic goes: since there are nations engaged in outlaw whaling anyway, why not legitimise their actions so that the IWC can better keep an eye on them? Scientific research into slowly recovering whale populations will be used by the IWC to justify its willingness to negotiate commercial whaling quotas. As a result of the legitimising of outlaw whaling, the renegade nations of Norway, Iceland and Japan may be coerced to rejoin the IWC mainstream, with the inevitable side effect that other nations will thereby be spurred to recommence whaling.

Even though Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd disagree vehemently on questions of strategy, their ultimate goal is to de-legitimise a culture which sees whale and dolphin slaughter as acceptable; in other words, if cultural habits can be learned (Macarthur’s promotion of whale meat in the Japanese diet, for example), they can also be unlearned. Re-introducing commercial whaling quotas in order to bring renegade nations to heel is simply rewarding bad behaviour, and must be rejected. At a 2004 IWC meeting, Japan nearly secured a majority of votes for its motion that the Southern Oceanic Whale Sanctuary be eliminated, which would have allowed whalers full and free access to one of the last safe breeding grounds for whales on Earth.

Unfortunately, the whaling industry refuses to consign itself to history. The June 2011 IWC meeting in Norway will be a crucial moment in whale-human relations, and only political force in the shape of passionate public sentiment (the kind that can be translated into votes) will be effective. Not only should the Moratorium not be lifted, it should be re-imagined as a total end to whaling of all kinds and its perverse loopholes closed forever.

-David McMillan

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