From The Editor’s Desk: Is Icelandic Whaling Bad?

A week ago I received an email that sparked this post.

An Appeal to the Public to Not Visit Iceland Until Icelandic Whaling Stops

Online environmental activist and CEO of FISH4TRAVEL, INC., Robert Bennett, is asking thousands of people every day not to visit Iceland until the country stops killing whales. A website named was created to raise awareness of Icelandic whaling and the fact that endangered whales are being killed and the meat is being sold to Japan, in defiance of the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling.

The website is partnered with more than 100 travel websites that display thousands of advertisements to thousands of people every day stating “Iceland Kills Whales – I Will Not Visit Iceland”. [sic] finds irony in Iceland’s intractable actions which lie in their widespread attempts to attract tourism to their country for the purpo

se of whale sightings. The supporters of this campaign would like Iceland to understand that the public will not support Iceland’s whale sighting tourism while the country slaughters whales. With the support of well-known travel websites, such as, the campaign aims to put an end to this cavalier attitude.

The public is encouraged to visit [sic] for more information regarding the killing of whales, and how the public can put a stop to these policies.

Two arguments against whaling exist. 1. Ethical–killing of any animal or more specifically a marine mammal is morally wrong. I won’t address this argument other than I find it hypocritical to protect whales for ethical reasons while simultaneously eating beef or pork. 2. Scientific–whales are endangered and takes of individuals are not only unsustainable but increase the risk of extinction.

From 1986-2007, Iceland took 562 whales (292 Fin, 70 Sei, and 200 Minke). Since 2003, Icelandic whale catches diminished considerably switching from Fin and Sei to Minke. For perspective, compare this to the reported 2,984 from the North Pacific and 9,409 from the Southern Hemisphere taken by Japanese from 1988-2009. Clearly, Japan and Iceland should be not be considered equals when it comes to whaling.

Of these three whales, Fin and Sei are endangered, occurring on the IUCN Red List. Minke are actually considered to separate species, Balaenoptera bonaerensis occurring in the Antarctic and Balaenoptera acutorostrata occurring globally. The Antarctic Minke are listed by the IUCN as Data Deficient, i.e. we do not have enough information on how many there are to make a statement about whether they are at risk. The other species, the ones taken by Iceland, are listed by the IUCN as least concern, i.e. not threatened. From IUCN…

There is no estimate of total global population size, but estimates from parts of the range in the Northern Hemisphere (totaling in excess of 100,000 individuals) show that it is well above the thresholds for a threatened category. While declines have been detected or inferred in some areas, there is no indication that the global population has declined to an extent that would qualify for a threatened category… The IWC recognizes four stocks of minke whales in the North Atlantic: Northeast Atlantic, Central North Atlantic, West Greenland, and Canadian East Coast. The last includes the US east coast. Population estimates were last reviewed by the IWC SC in 2003 (IWC 2004a), but a new estimate for West Greenland was accepted in 2006 (IWC 2007a). The best/most recent available estimates are listed in Table 1 in the linked PDF document (which constitutes an integral part of this assessment). These total about 182,000.

But here is key statement…

About 4,000 minke whales were taken off Iceland during 1941-85, but recent abundance estimates imply that this would have had no discernible effect on the population.

Nor would the current take of 20-50 per year. To summarize again, the North Atlantic stocks are well over 100,000 and a catch rate of one-two orders of magnitude higher than the current would be sustainable. Contrast this with the statement from above by RescueTheWhales

the fact that endangered whales are being killed

The problem here resides in the idea of passing an ethical argument off as a scientific one. I am for marine conservation but based on sound science not on morality. Conservation based on the later is weak and easily altered by our whims. Another issue also rises by confusing the two justifications for conservation. When people find out the actual truth, in this case that Minkes are not endangered, they target science as the culprit. The public starts to assume that science is inaccurate, capricious, or worse untruthful. When in actuality sound science was present throughout but ignored. You can see the danger in this first hand by looking at the post and comments section in Miriam’s recent piece.

Whether you choose to harvest or eat Fin or Sei is a scientific choice. We should not as both are endangered.

Whether you choose to harvest or eat Minke is an ethical question based on whether you choose to eat any animal, not just whales. And like I made the decision to eat domesticated cows or pigs or hunted animals like deer and rabbit, I so decided to eat Minke Whale on a recent trip to Iceland. Science says its ok.

40 Replies to “From The Editor’s Desk: Is Icelandic Whaling Bad?”

  1. Problem here Dr.M is that you have just made a rational argument to a world of irrational, highly emotional, partisan, ugly, fruitless, whale saving media crazies.

    Whaling is a business.

    Saving whales is a business too.

    It’s been going on for decades.

    I think your argument is perfect, that is if anyone on either side of a line drawn in the ocean will even look at it.

    What you have written is about as “heretical” as Martin Luthers first draft to those folks currently filming Whale Wars Season Six, and to those folks at the Faroe islands who like a good whale lancing (you know, fun for the kids) every year or two.

    Sadly the partisan nature of the whaling issue has become so toxic I am unsure that good conservations like this can even get a toe hold.

    By the way, how was the minke?

  2. OMG, you’re history’s greatest monster!

    also, i would add that many people might distinguish between animals based on various characteristics. whales are perceived to be intelligent, more intelligent than cows. though intelligence doesn’t save pigs. i know, different argument….

  3. I think it is no secret that we are not friends of Cap’n Paul around here. Lies often cascade and the moment scientists begin a lie, they expose not only themselves but the community.

    As Southern Fried Scientist always says, Sea Shepherd is the only one profiting from whaling these days.

  4. Arguments of animal value based on perceived intelligence are bogus because not all types of intelligence are equivalent Parrots, for example, can intuitively count objects (i.e. just “there’s 9”, not “1, 2, 3,…9”) much better than humans, and ants have zero individual intelligence but border on collective social genius. I would rather see the arguments based on more relevant metrics like the animal’s ability to replace its own population. I think we’ve all tolerated emotional arguments about whale/dolphin conservation for a long time because they served a good end, but if they’re taken too far they become counterproductive, as do the extreme positions in any argument, not least because they preclude even the possibility of compromise.

  5. A very good post, giving hope for true conservation.

    Regarding Fin whales in the North Atlantic, I encourage the author to check the following page.

    It’s clear that it’s quite OK to eat fin whales as well as minke whales, and the IUCN listings are not the be-all and end-all of our scientific knowledge.

    The IUCN also lists Antarctic minke whales as Data Deficient, yet I doubt any serious scientist currently involved with assessing the status of the species would doubt that it is likely the most abundant large cetacean species on Earth at the current time.

  6. Thank you for this post. I checked out the site, and it’s a perfect example of how people tend to conflate the scientific and ethical arguments when it comes to whaling. The site itself says nothing about minke whales, but it also doesn’t specify that minkes are NOT endangered, and the message is clearly “all whaling is bad; we want all of it to stop.” And of course most people who visit the site will have no idea that many of the whales Iceland hunts are NOT endangered. Really, my biggest problem with the website and the campaign is this lack of information; they’re trying to recruit people without letting them in on the whole truth.

    I was really disappointed by the failure of the International Whaling Commission last year to negotiate any sort of compromise with whaling countries. It seems that it has become a moral issue for so many people – while some organizations (like Pew and even Greenpeace) were willing to endorse a deal that allowed some whaling, but brought it back under the control of the IWC, there were others that were against any sort of deal. And some of the arguments offered – by scientific research organizations – were blatantly ethical arguments, not scientific ones.

    As Patric said above, it’s become so partisan that it’s difficult to even get a conversation going. We’ve had it drilled into our heads that whaling is BAD and even some NGOs, I suspect, are too afraid of public backlash and loss of donor support to stand with the science and say “actually, some whaling is okay.”

  7. Agreed Al, is there some way to approach the whaling issue that does not demonize the folks who are engaged in it?

    Or some way to get traction on the issue?

    Heck, we’re beyond demonization, these folks have been billed as the living anti-christ by the Save the Whale groups.

    Totally counterproductive on so many fronts, except if you’re making a Reality (ahem) Television show. If really want to get whalers into some righteous indignation, try and justify actions taken against them vs the 317 million pounds of fine white veal Americans consume each year.

    Or even factory farming.

    What we’re seeing in the Southern Ocean right now is the same as a bunch of PETA folks driving a van into the side of a factory beef farm…them blaming the farm for hitting the van, all in the name of stopping Americans from consuming beef.

    Commedia dell arte if the topic was not so damn serious.


    I would like to see whaling end, but under the current regime of fake press releases, angry vitriol, and a Reality (ahem) Television show, I just do not see the window where open discussion might begin and real conservation progress might start.


  8. First of all, international conventions prohibit the killing of whales for commercial purposes. The International Whaling Commission enacted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species prohibits the trade of products made from whales. So, what is irrational about requiring nations to actually adhere to international conventions?

    Second, from 1915 to 1935 Iceland did not hunt whales and prior to that whaling in Iceland was dominated by foreign companies (mostly Norwegian), not domestic industry. From 1938 to 1948 Iceland did not hunt whales until the establishment of the first successful truly domestic whaling company, Hvalur HF. From 1990 to 2003 Iceland again did not hunt whales until Hvalur was eventually permitted to start once again. So this concept that Iceland has some uninterrupted tradition of hunting whales is entirely false. It’s been a failed industry in Iceland on and off again.

    Third, the primary focus of Iceland’s whaling industry is to profit by exporting the meat of endangered Fin whales to Japan. Hvalur’s owner has publicly stated this is because they do not want to push minke whale meat on an already saturated market in Japan (which already kills lots Minke whales). So Iceland’s whalers are literally slaughtering an endangered species in order to exploit a market for the meat in Japan. According to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Iceland is killing TRIPLE the number of endangered Fin whales than the IWC would advise if the IWC allowed a quota other than ZERO.

    I have yet to see an argument from Iceland that doesn’t boil down to numbers cooked up by the whalers to supposedly justify the hunt and a “we have the right” attitude. None of the nations that hunt whales on an industrial scale have any need to do so. Whaling is not necessary for food security or economic prosperity in any industrial nation. Demand for whale meat has consistently declined since the 1960s. Many species of whales remain endangered today because the world’s whaling industries simply ignored or violated international conventions (like the way Iceland continued to kill Blue whales up until 1960 despite the IWC prohibiting this in 1954). Iceland’s desire to continue with the industry represents the financial and political interests of a select few and nothing more.

  9. Caveat 1: Eyes wide open, I step into this in full expectation of getting flamed (Damn You McClain!)
    Caveat 2: I’m on my second glass of bourbon.

    If all this overly neat line-drawing is what allows you to sleep at night, Dr. M et al, then more power to you.

    But I’m more than a little uncomfortable by these arbitrary dichotomies y’all seem to be drawing here. I’m certainly right in alignment with you that conservation needs to be informed by our best available scientific understanding. But this, “No Morality, Please, We’re Scientists” shtick and that rationale that population density and IUCN listing should be our sole guide in conservation decisions/resource management strikes me as painting a brittle and hyper-caricatured representation of scientists/science.

    Forget morality for the moment. Can’t conservation also be served from a place of compassion? So maybe it’s as relative as morality. But hear me out. Maybe you take refuge in the fact that the current whaling practices are conscionable because we tolerate factory farms that churn through a lot of animal flesh and animal cruelty each year, all for a juicy New York strip or a tasty dish of braised pork bellies. But because that is the case that suffering is tolerated, doesn’t mean it ought to be the case.

    So science can inform us that a viable population of Minke whales exists. And science can also help us arrive at a sustainable harvest quota. But why are you leaving science’s contributions at that? Doesn’t science also reveal that whales, as mammals, are marvelously complex neural organisms. And as such can experience pain and suffering? And couldn’t science play a role in helping to minimize the suffering of these mammals? I mean beyond the basic tenets of sustainable use of not hunting calves for risk of depleting future stock. Can’t we help inform a more swift means of dispatching individuals that reduces kill time and suffering? We do this (sort of) with factory farms. If whales represent a sustainable and viable food source, can’t science help in this regard? Maybe it’s not conservation per se, but it seems worth the consideration.

    Both the Animal Welfare Act and the Public Health Service (PHS) Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, otherwise known as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Policy, require an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to oversee animal care and use programs at institutions using vertebrate animals in research and teaching. Why do we bother with such formalities unless they have bearing? And aren’t these policies informed by what we know about vertebrate anatomy/physiology/behavior?

    I suppose the argument can be made that the only reason these oversight bodies even exist in the first place is because of a stink that was raised by the antivivisectionists and other animal rights groups (or as my brother calls them, the bunny huggers). But do you mean to say that without these external committee’s, scientists are so calloused that they’ll simply devolve into wanton acts of cruelty, snipping heads off mice with a pair of dull scissors?

    I also sense somewhere in this dialogue that a modicum of expression of compassion among scientists with respect to this issue is a slippery slope, with the inevitable next steps being either crewing aboard a Sea Shepherd vessel or perhaps devotee-ship in the CrzyDolphinLady Twitter feed. On the contrary. I have a heart and sometimes it bleeds. That’s what hearts do.

    I know I risk coming off here as perhaps having only broad, ineffectual sentiment on my side. But I feel it’s worth saying nonetheless.

    A non-bunny-hugging, non-Sea Shepherd-joining, drunk ocean scientist cum conservationist.


  10. It’s not “No Morality, Please, We’re Scientists”.

    It’s “No Morality dressed up as science, please.”

    You can support, oppose or not really care about the eating of minke whales. But you can’t say that killing them is wrong from a conservation perspective.

    And the only animal you should feel guilty about eating is an octopus. But damn are those things tasty…

  11. The killing of whale for commercial purposes is not prohibited by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). Currently the IWC, established with the ICRW as it’s basis, has a zero catch limit in place for whales caught for commercial purposes as a Schedule amendment, which, unlike the Convention, is subject to revision from time to time. However the convention allows for Contracting governments to lodge objections
    to Schedule amendments as they see fit. Iceland maintains an objection to this measure by the IWC, as it does not have an appropriate scientific basis as required under the terms of the convention.

    In reality, I think everyone understands that the IWC has been taken over by nations that do not agree with the ICRW, and these nations are attempting to subvert the convention from it’s purpose. This is an excellent example of why it is important for conventions to allow for objections such as that employed here, lest nations be subjected to the bad behaviour of other nations against their sovereign rights. The IWC would surely have already collapsed if it were not for this and other provisions.

    Similarly, CITES also allows for such reservations/objections, and in the case of Iceland, it has the necessary reservations in place to protect them from the incorrect decision by other nations to ban trade in whale meat.

    I do not understand why you raised the issue of a “tradition” of whaling in Iceland. It was not mentioned in the article. In any case, Iceland’s actions are determined primarily by Icelanders, and the majority of Icelanders support Iceland’s sustainable whaling policy.

    There is no crime in attempting to profit from exports, on the contrary, it is a world standard. The fin whales that reside in the North Atlantic are not endangered. They are distinct from fin whales in other parts of the world that were over-exploited by others in the past. And I doubt Hvalur would have been successful in exporting the meat to Japan last year were the Japanese market truly saturated, as you claim. I suspect such claims originate from those who campaign against whaling. If America has a problem with the numbers of whales that Iceland is taking, it may raise the issue with Iceland. Let it also be said however, that if the IWC were not maintaining the “moratorium” despite it’s own mandated functions (the regulation of whaling on a scientific basis), the IWC itself would be setting catch quotas for Iceland’s whaling, rather than Iceland setting the quotas by it’s own responsibility. Those of us who care about the proper conservation of whale resources would rather like to see things that way, but it is alas the case that those anti-whaling people appear to care little about this consequence of their behaviour.

    Your statement that demand for whale meat has declined since the 1960’s is inaccurate. What has declined since the 1960’s is the supply of whale meat, due to the protection of previously over-exploited stocks. These were necessary measures in the 1960’s and 1970’s for certain stocks, however the 1980’s moratorium was not.

  12. In general, animal welfare is separate from, though inextricably linked, to conservation. Most of the activation energy for conservation comes from people not wanting that specific turtle/elephant/seal/panda species to go extinct, and that’s fine. Conservation is not 100% driven by science, we also have to think about economics, human and animal welfare, long-term goals, and yes, even ethics. Of course, the only way of approaching a conservation issue that has even a hope of being unbiased is the scientific data, which is why scientist sit at the middle of these debates.

    An unfortunate side effect is that people often conflate conservation goals with animals rights goals. Yes factory farms can be horrific, but farms can also be humane. Hunting can be cruel, but culling a population can also help it recover. Monoculture farming has put us in a food-diversity crisis, but it’s also feeding an ever growing human population. In the end we have to make a personal decision about what level of human impact we’re comfortable with, but recognize that the baggage involved may not all be supported (or even supportable) by the evidence.

    So yes, the Minke Whales are doing ok, the low levels of whaling going on right now will probably not crash their populations. If you want to eat some, there’s no data driven reason why you shouldn’t, but there is a whole lot of baggage.

    @kevin technically I said something to the effect of “no one profits more from Japanese whaling than Sea Shepherd” since Iceland and Norway are free of butter bombs and SSCS shenanigans.

  13. I think there’s a big difference between making a personal choice and making a choice based on the science. If a fishery is sustainable and benefits the community performing it, I see no problem allowing it. On the flip side, people can choose to eat what they want to eat based purely on morality, and that’s fine too.
    I don’t eat shark for both conservation and personal moral reasons (except for one incident with some mako last summer). At the same time, the spiny dogfish stock is no considered recovered and quotas have been raised, but you won’t see me out there waiting for dogfishermen with a crew of vegans armed with potato guns. If you don’t like the way something is harvested, don’t eat it. If enough people don’t like it, the market will shrink and eventually vanish.
    And I’m with you on the octopus issue. Intelligent, fascinating, and delicious. I wonder what giant isopod tastes like?

  14. The reality of whaling is a high profile no-win right now.

    The more the Sea Shepherds and others push, the straighter the backs become of Japan and Norway who, in no uncertain terms, will not allow a bunch of butyric acid throwing loons dictate their fisheries policy.

    Simple as that.

    So, because of whaling activists and the incessant, “seriously massaged” media being pumped out on a regular basis, they (whalers) are going to hold the line. Or they *may* seek a slight reduction as we saw with Wiki Leaks that will ultimately mean nothing.

    What we are currently engaged in is self fulfilling Mobius Loop of action and push back. Meanwhile whales are still being killed, and dolphins are still being killed.

    I am seriously interested in any conversation that goes beyond the loop.

    Honestly, is this the absolute best we can do here?

    Or are we as scientists, conservationists, animal lovers, and media folks content to cede the ground to basically a handful of 1970’s thinking, big budget, $70.00 vegan appetizer party snacking, self anointed, conservation rock stars?

    To anyone who thinks that Whale Wars is changing the public’s opinion, how do you justify a Reality Television show that depicts whales being killed and then in the blink of an eye, offers commercials selling everything from plastics, to cars, to big oil, and yes, factory raised beef?

    Anyone see the disconnect here?

    The vaulted ideal of conservation has been subsumed by a multi-million dollar advertising machine, using the media antics of a few to message a populace with faked reality (anyone remember Watson’s shot in the chest moment?)

    As if the reality of whaling was not horrific enough.

    Can anyone come up with a smarter plan or are we doomed to Season 75 of Whale Wars?

  15. Thanks for the post. It gave me a little perspective, which is healthy in any conservation issue. Although I think it’s important to point out the scientific data that makes Minke whaling “acceptable,” perhaps we should also be grateful that there are Minke whale lovers out there. If whalers decide to step up their quotas for Minke whales and their numbers are affected some day, wouldn’t it be nice to know there are people other than scientists who care? In my case, the more I learn about an animal, the more I care, and the less I want to eat them. That’s scientific fact coupled with my own personal feelings. It’s what makes me (and a lot of other people in this world) human.

  16. There are some falsehoods here that need to stop.

    1) The idea that all environmentalists are just trying to make money by claiming to represent a cause:

    This claim exists for one reason and that’s to skew the conversation away from the issue at hand. It’s a favorite of industry fronts who just want to paint all environmental organizations with the same demonizing brush.

    2) The idea that these organizations specifically exploit Japan:

    You have to look at the history of the whaling industry and why the Save the Whales movement started in the first place. There are many species of whales that are endangered today because whaling nations did not heed the warnings of scientists and conservationists and ignored or violated international regulations. Commercial (including Japan’s “research”) whaling done today continues this pattern of behavior.

    Japan is the world’s worst offender by currently killing more whales than any other nation and acting as the world market for whale meat. However, Iceland and Norway have not escaped protest. In 2010, a shipment of endangered Fin whale meat from Iceland was stopped in Rotterdam by Greenpeace. Agenda 21 scuttled a Norwegian whaling boat. WDCS exposed Greenland’s illegal commercial use of subsistence whaling quotas. Several other organizations publicly condemned the slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. Ric O’Barry and the Earth Island Institute launched a television series (though unsuccessful) about the captive dolphin trade. 19 environmental organizations called on the USA to invoke its domestic laws and enact sanctions against Iceland. 25 nations made an official “demarche” or statement against Iceland’s whaling. So it’s not just Japan. Sea Shepherd just gets more headlines because of its methods.

    3) The idea that a claimed right to whaling is automatically legitimate:

    Whether it’s whaling or fishing, there are international conventions that nations are supposed to adhere to and in every case of pelagic overfishing (including the long history of whaling that drove nearly every species of large whale to the brink of extinction) there is IUU (Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated) fishing and some measure of state support for violating quotas.

    When an international authority sets a quota, a moratorium, or some other plan to reduce or eliminate pressure on a species, why would any violation or continued exploitation under any objection be considered legitimate? I’ve seen many excuses but didn’t these objecting nations already lose a vote?

  17. Doesn’t it depend on why we conserve animals? If we conserve them for the ultimate goal of creating a more useful/pleasurable/long-lived world for ourselves, then sure, any sustainable practice is okay, as long as it’s good for us. If we conserve ecosystems because we believe that there some (ultimately moral) good done by the preservation of life (in the form of systems of organisms,) then the moral argument is inextricable from the scientific argument – in fact, it is the reason for making a scientific argument at all.

    Do we study life because we see some personal use in it, or because we respect it in and of itself?

    Also, because terms like “wrong” and “not wrong” are being used, WE ARE TALKING ABOUT MORALITY. If what you mean is “ustainable” or “unsustainable”, say those things. But you can’t make claims about “wrong”-ness or “right”-ness, “ok”-ness, or what we “should” do, and then maintain that you are not making moral statements (that need to be backed up in turn with moral arguments.)

    Case in point:

    “And like I made the decision to eat domesticated cows or pigs or hunted animals like deer and rabbit, I so decided to eat Minke Whale on a recent trip to Iceland. Science says its ok.”

    Science HASN’T said that your moral choice to eat animals is okay. Perhaps it has said that you eat Minke whale, if not too many other people do it, will probably not drastically decrease Minke whale populations in the near future. Logic may say that, if you’ve already rejected the moral arguments against eating cows and pigs, it’s roughly consistent to reject the moral arguments against eating whale meat.

    Case #2:

    “Whether you choose to harvest or eat Fin or Sei is a scientific choice. We should not as both are endangered.”

    Here, you have made an implicit moral argument that protecting biodiversity is ultimately good. Morally good. You just haven’t actually made that argument here, so it’s easier to look as if you’re far away from any sort of subjective moral reasoning. So much for science and morality being separable. (I should mention that I agree with this moral statement – I just can’t agree that it’s “only” scientific in nature.)

    One final case:

    “I am for marine conservation but based on sound science not on morality. Conservation based on the later is weak and easily altered by our whims.”

    Here, you’ve confused “morality” with “public sympathy”. Moral and ethic reasoning (as moral philosophers and ethicists will tell you) are more that “our whims” – they can actually be done in rational, measured ways (for examples, look at any consensus-based law-making system.) For the sake of having an easy-to-define dichotomy (out of which “scientific reasoning” can rise victorious”,) you’ve made “moral reasoning” out to be a 90-pound weakling that gets pushed around in the service of our petty emotions – the unfettered guidance by which is exactly what rational morality protects society against (to a degree, anyways.)

    Good article, BTW.

  18. 1. Not a single person on this thread has said that.

    2. No one has made that argument here, either.

    3. The converse to that is the idea that a claimed right to whaling is automatically illegitimate, which is also a falsehood. And while many people do not like that fact that Norway and Iceland are whaling under objection and Japan is exploiting a loophole that allows scientific whaling, to argue that their claims to whaling are illegitimate is disingenuous at best. The mechanisms they’re using to continue whaling are written into either the IWC charter or the moratorium.

  19. What worries me slightly is that this topic has instigated a very interesting discussion and the precautionary principle has not been mentioned. Often used and deemed necessary, yet hardly applied, in environmental protection and conservation issues, the precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action (there are other interpretations). Why is this so hard to abide by, do we not all have the responsability to be cautious, despite our scientific knowledge or the absence of knowledge? Whether it is morality, science or any other reason, should precaution not be a principle to adhere to in our own and the planet’s interest. I love science and I love what it explains, but I am also aware that realising that there are “unknown unknowns” which may impede the environment’s future and inherently our own is a virtue and not a sin.

    Indeed, giving ethical reasons for saving whales is hypocritical considering the consumption of cows, pigs, etc. A crucial difference here, however, is the process of domestication. Yes, the breeding of mammals for human consumption has had certain implications for our immediate environment in terms of waste, resources, etc. – agreed, but it is not extracting wild life from ecosystems that partially depend on them and of which we – and I’m sorry to say – still understand so little of.

    Oh, and why should morality not be a reason to conserve, because of cultural differences, perhaps… Is science not serving humanity in the morally justified way that we are hoping to ensure a livable planet for future generations? There is a very close link between science and society, whether we like it or not and it is shaped by the way our communities work. If our consumption behaviour is solely to be based on scientific knowledge and not on ethics, we probably have no reasons at all not to eat humans which die every second within and beyond our control … Ethically not acceptable (at least in most cultures)… scientifically it would probably bring solutions to quite a few problems… and at least the whales wouldn’t have to die unnecessary, let’s be honest, they didn’t ask for it, did they.

    Don’t want to offend, but it is not always black or white, and there are many shades of grey.

  20. Re 3):
    I don’t think anyone here is assuming that any claimed right to whaling is automatically legitimate. However, YOU are assuming that any ruling by an international authority like the IWC is automatically legitimate.

    One of the chief criticisms of the ICW is that process isn’t legitimate. There are allegations of vote buying on both sides of the issue, as well as very open attempts to pack the commission with non-stakeholders. Also, the stated purpose of the ICRW is (emphasis mine) “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry“- not to ban commercial whaling. The convention specifically requires that in order to limit harvests or establish sanctuaries, there must be a scientific basis (Article V). To that end the IWC did their own study of Minke whales that showed that about 2000 a year could be harvested from the Southern Ocean, yet they STILL voted to not only maintain the moratorium, but establish the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary as well. Japan’s argument has always been that this is in direct violation of the ICRW’s requirement that any regulation must be based on scientific findings and therefore isn’t legitimate, regardless of how the members vote.

  21. The main reason the precautionary principle hasn’t been mentioned is that it only applies in situations where the impact is unknown. While there is large uncertainty in the estimates of whale population, the data shows that even using pessimistic estimates, Iceland’s Minke catch is sustainable.

    The precautionary principle only really comes into play for fin and sei whales where given the uncertainty, it’s not clear how many, if any can be caught without threatening the population.

  22. Thanks. That makes sence from a single-species perspective, but do we really know what the effects are beyond sustainability of the population of a partiular species, e.g. cascading effects down the food web and the sustenance of hidden genetic diversity? I find it sometimes difficult to grasp why looking beyond the sustanability of the species itself doesn’t happen more often. Examples of such misconceptions are legio… Perhaps we should be precautionary in a more holistic way.

  23. Mike, I think you’ve hit the crux of the problem – which regulatory bodies actually have authority over whaling?

    Clearly the IWC is the lead contender, but as with all international organizations, it’s authority is limited to the willingness of the member nations to abide by its ruling. One of the ironies of the IWC is that any nation could leave it and continue whaling, with no legal repercussions (though certainly political). The fact that other member nations haven’t rolled out economic sanctions or done anything more than voice their disagreement with Iceland, Norway, or Japan is a tacit acknowledgment that the whaling under objection and scientific whaling is valid under strict interpretation of the moratorium, though perhaps not the spirit.

    The World Charter for Nature may have some teeth in this issue, but only within the realm of an international trial. While some conservation orgs can and do claim authority under the treaty for nature, the reality is that that authority hasn’t been tested.

    The US has many federal regulations (Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act) which have far reaching international impact because of the amount of trade and vessel traffic conducted in US waters, but those have minimal impact on the high seas and zero effect in other nations’ territorial waters.

    A lot of people on both sides of the debate like to think that international laws are clear-cut and black and white, but international law is nebulous, confounded with political baggage, and often riddled with exemptions and loopholes. The IWC and the moratorium are no exception.

    And we haven’t even gotten to the issue of who actually enforces international law.

  24. Why bother having international conventions if member nations simply opt out of any decisions or restrictions with absolutely no consequences outside of “public discourse”.

    Where whaling is concerned we’ve already seen the true consequences in the many species and sub populations of whales that are endangered today as a result of over exploitation and violation or “opting out” of established regulations by commercial whaling.

    The first attempts to regulate whaling internationally began in 1925.

  25. Some claim that the ICRW has no business trying to limit whaling. They extract one line from a long document to justify this claim.

    What else does the ICRW say?

    “The Commission may amend from time to time the provisions of the Schedule by adopting regulations with respect to the conservation and utilization of whale resources, fixing (a) protected and unprotected species; (b) open and closed seasons; (c) open and closed waters, including the designation of sanctuary areas; (d) size limits for each species; (e) time, methods, and intensity of whaling (including the maximum catch of whales to be taken in any one season); (f) types and specifications of gear and apparatus and appliances which may be used; (g) methods of measurement; and (h) catch returns and other statistical and biological records. ”

    But if these regulations are violated (as they historically have been by whaling nations) what are the consequences?

    Why don’t I just get a few whaling ships together, using flags of convenience from countries that are not signatories to the ICRW, like Aristotle Onassis in the 1950s and slaughter whales with no respect for size limits, species protections, or seasonal limits?

    If nobody stops me I’ll just call it legal the way some defend what Iceland, Norway, and Japan are doing.

  26. I think this article needs a perspective from scientists actually involved in the regulation of whaling. Here is an excerpt from a statement to the IWC in 2009 by Dr. Sidney Holt (marine biologist, former IWC scientific committee member, former adviser to several nations and observer for NGOs):

    “By the way, this is a multiple anniversary year.

    It’s important to me because I first became involved with the IWC exactly half a century ago – 1959. It was decided then that Antarctic baleen whale catches would be reduced to sustainable levels, by 1964 at the latest,in accordance with scientific advice to be provided by three independent scientists of which I was one.

    That reduction didn’t happen until the early 1970s.

    Then, 2009 is the thirtieth anniversary of the creation of the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Next month the first symposium on the cetaceans of the region will be held in The Maldives.

    Most importantly it’s eighty years since the eminent Argentine lawyer, José Leon Suárez, proposed to the League of Nations that a sanctuary for whales be established in the Antarctic. Suarez reported that if nothing were done the fin, blue and humpback whales would be practically exterminated in the Southern Hemisphere. That took rather longer than he thought it would, but it had happened by 1959.

    Then. in the 1960s ,the sei whales were plundered.

    Demolition of the minke whales started in the 1970s.

    The biomass of the still numerous minke whales is less than two percent of the biomass of the Southern Hemisphere baleen whales at the time Suarez reported to the League of Nations.

    Think about that. We’re talking endlessly about how to sweep up the crumbs left on the table after the feast. If anything’s dysfunctional, that’s it.”

  27. I am tired of gringo imbeciles like you who try to ‘rationalize’ whaling as if it were just :-) a scientific issue. Iceland, japan and Norway, three of the richest countries in the world, support a global network of corruption of poor developing countries, and in fact of destabilization of the IWC itself, to support their uneconomical, government-subsidized whaling. This is hardly a scientific issue or a ‘national’ one; it bears heavily on imperalism ideology that the racist idiots who run whaling in the three countries mentioned profess.
    Whaling by the hyperdeveloped countries destabilizes conservation policies of developing countries far, far away from their own waters. I would invite the author of this ignorant editorial to spend a few days at an IWC Plenary and see for himself how the leaders of these ‘Nordic democracies’ behave and what they say – too much sounding like African dictators – in defence of this dying trade. Maybe then you will understand why whaling is NOT a scientific issue, but one bearing on the sovereign right of the majority of countries to appropriate whales non-lethally, a policy that the vote-buying and heavy-handing by the whaling racists still threatens.

  28. I’t wont take long for full blown whaling to start decimating already struggling populations, take a look at Japan:

    The Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the
    Antarctic (JARPAII) includes 50 Fin whales (Endangered ESA & IUCN) and 50 Humpback whales (Endangered ESA & vulnerable IUCN) and of course hundreds upon hundreds of Minke whales (“The cockroaches of the sea” said a Japanese official).

    Even though they have a special permit for 50 Humpbacks, they seem to be leaving these alone (although this may be hard to prove) for the purposes of political bargaining.

    The Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the North Pacific (JARPNII) deserves a special mention here because it is the hunt that is not as well known as JARPAII. The North Pacific hunt consists of a much larger variety of endangered whales. They include:

    – Sei
    – Bryde’s
    – Sperm

    Along with a large haul of “common minke” whales.

    So it really does look like important science is being undertaken (NOT) when they are plucking endangered whales out of the oceans – the same whales struggling to get back to pre-whaling industry numbers which face even more challenges these days due to pollution, shipping ( & ship strikes), sonar tests (noise pollution, some of which can be lethal), loss of breeding grounds, climate change and loss of food sources (humans taking krill now too). And lastly, these science expeditions seemingly keep increasing their quotas of “samples needed” as Japan is longing for the day when they can begin full commerical whaling and until that day, they will continue to commercially whale under JARPAII and JARPNII.

  29. First, I can attest to the fact that while Craig might be a gringo, he is in no way an imbecile.
    Second, I would like an explanation of how Icelanders killing non-migrating whales in Icelandic waters negatively affects anyone in poor developing countries. This is an argument I have never encountered before in discussions of this subject and I am genuinely curious.

  30. Well I was investigating about going on a family trip in Oct 2012, when I came across this. I will now be going to Hawaii instead. Say what you want about eviro nuts, I commercial fished for ten years until I saw what ,greed, and over fishing did to our own coast. when I first started we only had to travel 10 mile to make a living, my last year we were going to the grand banks 40 hour steam. There is no need for the killing of an endangered speices of any kind. I would love to see Iceland and all it has to offer, but I will not be going until whaling is stopped. So I guess my 2 week trip which was going to cost 10k will go somewhere else. Aloha

  31. Dr.M,

    I read your article with some interest and I agree with you. It IS hypocritical to eat a pork chop while wearing a nice pair of leather shoes, and then complain about others eating a well-prepared serving of minke whale. However, I would respectfully point out that the same holds true for the East-Greenland/Iceland population of fin whale as well. The endangered population of fin whale is throughout the Southern hemisphere. Stocks in and around Iceland are up from their pre-IWC moratorium numbers, despite Icelandic fin whale harvests over the past few years (and no, they don’t mix). Additionally, Icelandic quotas represent .06% of fin whale stocks and .05% of minke whale stocks. By way of comparison, the deer population in Illinois was once on the edge of extinction. The 2010 deer population was estimated at 800,000 with a harvest of 182,270 (22.7%). Iceland also legal reservations with CITES that exempt it from their authority over fin whaling.

    Bottom line is that Iceland is harvesting whales in a sustainable manner, within it’s own exclusive economic zone.


  32. I would also point out that while the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species lists fin whales as endangered, the REGIONAL assessment for the North Atlantic population has pulled them in to the “Near Threatened) category, which is outside any of the three categories relating to a threatened species (Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered).


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