Sunday, February 20, 2011

Call Me Ishmael No Longer

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling ("ICRW") was intended to promote, not discourage, whaling.  Countries engaged in commercial whaling, concerned about precipitous declines of many whale populations negotiated, and, on December 2, 1946, signed, the ICRW to ensure the "proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry."  The governing body established under the ICRW, the International Whaling Commission ("IWC"), determines which species and populations of whales may be hunted, if at all, mandates where and when such hunting may or may not take place, and monitors the health of whale stocks.

Due largely to conservation measures implemented by the IWC, many whale stocks had begun to recover by the 1980s.  However, public attitudes towards whales had changed radically since the inception of the ICRW.  The discovery of complex Humpback Whale songs - first intercepted in Bermuda by a listening post for Russian submarines, and first studied by biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay - transformed lethargic sources of ambergris, blubber, and ivory into hauntingly articulate, socially complex, and seemingly intelligent peers.  Conservation groups and even prominent bands, such as Yes and The Grateful Dead, promoted cetacean conservation.  As the Dead sang, in "Save the Whales," 

Lots of whales in the deep blue sea, we kill them for the companies.Drag 'em alongside and chop 'em in two, melt them down and sail it to you.

In 1986, anti-whaling sentiment prompted the IWC to declare a commercial moratorium on whaling.  The IWC expanded its protection of whales in 1994, when it created the huge Southern Whale Sanctuary.

Since then, a small hard-core of pro-whaling nations - Iceland, Norway, and Japan - have fought unsuccessfully to overturn the moratorium, and, despite growing widespread opposition to whaling among their own citizens, have resumed harpooning whales.  Since the moratorium came into effect, Japan has justified its annual whale hunt as "scientific permit whaling."  Its extensive whaling fleet has harpooned and killed thousands of whales, increasingly in the Southern oceans.

Sea Shepherd, an environmental group dedicated to ending whaling, has followed the whaling fleets for years, and interfered with its hunt, with increasingly effective results.  The profile of Sea Shepherd and its Canadian founder, Paul Watson, have risen to unprecedented heights with the airing of the Animal Planet television series, Whale Wars.  This week, their efforts prevailed:  the Japanese whaling fleet conceded defeat, for this season at least, and headed home.  As the Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, reported on February 20, 2011,
With this season's research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean called off due to harassment by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Japan's whaling activities in the area may not see another year.  In addition to Sea Shepherd's acts of sabotage, low domestic demand for whale meat--which used to be a valuable source of protein during the food-scarce postwar years--also has made the prospect of continuing whaling extremely gloomy, officials said...[A Fisheries] ministry official said, "With the suspension of research whaling, there is no possibility of whaling continuing from next season as it has in the past."
While not yet saved, the whales may now be a lot safer.