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Commercial Whaling

The true cost of commercial whaling is too high

The Humane Society of the United States

In the 1970s, "Save the Whales!" was a rallying cry for the global environmental movement. Commercial whaling was driving many whale species to the brink of extinction, and everyone who cared about the future of the marine environment knew something had to be done. The International Whaling Commission (IWC), the inter-governmental body created by the 1946 International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), had clearly failed to govern whaling sustainably. Quotas were too high and often violated—as many as tens of thousands of whales were being illegally killed each year.

In 1982, after intensive lobbying efforts by environmentalists (including The HSUS) and supportive governments, the IWC passed a moratorium on commercial whaling. Everyone thought the whales were saved. But such victories are never simple or final—Japan continued to whale virtually without a break, claiming its whaling operation was now for scientific purposes. The IWC allows lethal scientific whaling, but only when it addresses questions vital to management.

For the last several years, the IWC has passed resolutions urging Japan to cease its "scientific" whaling, because it does not in fact comply with the spirit (or even the strict letter) of the ICRW's scientific whaling provision. The IWC found the research to be unnecessary, and that the same ends could be accomplished by non-lethal methods.

In 1993, Norway decided to exercise the reservation it took against the moratorium and resume domestic commercial whaling. Between the two countries, well over 1,000 minke whales—relatively diminutive whales, which were never exploited as ruthlessly as their larger cousins—continue to be killed every year. In 2000, in the face of massive opposition, Japan began killing several dozen animals of two other species during its whaling season—Bryde's and sperm whales—also for "science."

Both Norway and Japan, as well as other countries that receive fisheries aid from Japan, lobby vigorously at the IWC every year to lift the moratorium, saying several whale stocks have recovered to the point where they can once again be commercially hunted. Yet even as they make this claim, the Scientific Committee of the IWC has determined that even minke whales, considered relatively unaffected by previous decades of rampant whaling, may be far less numerous than originally estimated, especially in the Antarctic.

Whales are difficult to count, because they live mostly underwater and they migrate great distances. For this reason alone, they are singularly inappropriate targets of a commercial hunt. Should they be depleted (should quotas be overly optimistic or hunting poorly regulated), by the time managers even notice, it will likely be too late for recovery. This may in fact be the case for blue whales (the largest mammal ever to have lived), right whales, and some stocks of humpback whales, which have yet to show any clear signs of recovery despite decades of protection.

In addition, effective regulation of quotas and species restrictions may very well be impossible—factory ships process the whales at sea, and it is difficult to tell what species and how many marine mammals are represented by the hunks of meat that are off-loaded at ports. A legal market for whale meat can, of course, be used as a front for illegal whale meat as well. Finally, whales are so large that killing them humanely is virtually impossible—an instant kill is rare and is usually the result of pure luck. Even with the grenade-tipped harpoon now used as the primary killing method, it can take several minutes—and as long as an hour or more—for an animal to die. The HSUS firmly opposes any resumption of commercial whaling.

Whales should not be subject to a commercial hunt—it is too difficult and probably impossible to manage a commercial hunt sustainably, and the cruelty inflicted on these animals cannot be justified by profit. The world must learn from its past mistakes and make a pledge to these magnificent denizens of the seas—to leave them be in their ocean realm, to recover and to swim in peace.

To read our Save Whales—Not Whaling brochure, download the PDF.

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