25 November 2008

A sad tale: Antarctic whaling

As austral summer approaches and the 'high season' of the Antarctic opens up, Australia and Japan are gearing up for another round in the Great Game 2.0, the quest to control Antarctica and the potential resources it represents if and when the Antarctic Treaty breaks down.

The lead ship of the Japanese whaling fleet, the Nisshin Maru, has set out on its annual 'scientific whaling' expedition. The ship left from Innoshima in western Japan with little fanfare. A Greenpeace spokesperson said, “Constant pressure on Japan's whaling industry...has reduced the fleet to sneaking out of port in a fog of crisis and scandal, desperate to avoid attention”.

Last year, diplomatic tensions rose between Australia and Japan, a result of confrontations between anti-whaling activists Sea Shepherd and the whalers. Protesters launched stink-bombs and boarded the Japanese ships without permission and were held captive for several hours. Ultimately, the whalers returned home with only around half the numbers of whales killed for their 'study' than had been planned.

This year, it is anticipated that Japan will have a quota of 850 minke and 50 fin whales. The Australian government is unlikely to send an official vessel to monitor the activity. Also, Greenpeace has decided not to send an anti-whaling ship this year amid expectations Japan may send a coastguard ship with the fleet to ward off activists. (Wouldn't this be technically illegal under the Treaty, which prohibits militarization of the continent?). Sea Shepherd again plans to disrupt the hunt, hoping to send two ships this season.

Earlier this year, Japan's scientific body in charge of the whaling endeavor published a paper claiming a 'key finding' from the research:

The new study analysed measurements taken from 4,689 adult whales killed by the Japanese whaling fleet between 1988 and 2005. It found that blubber thickness and overall fat weight had decreased by 9% over the period, which it called a 'substantial decline". Girth of the animals was down 4%. The study says: "This is the first time a long-term decline in energy storage in minke whales has been demonstrated."...

...[T]he decline in blubber was down to shrinking numbers of Antarctic krill, a shrimp-like crustacean at the heart of the food chain. The amount of blubber lost is roughly equivalent to 36 fewer days of intensive summer feeding.

Krill numbers in the water around the rapidly-warming Antarctic peninsula have collapsed by about 80% since the 1970s. This is blamed on the loss of sea ice, which provide shelter and food for krill.

The study says the impact of global warming on the minke whales is unclear because no similar krill measurements have been made in that region of the Southern Ocean. But it claims that competition for krill from other predators such as the humpback must also be "considered as a likely explanation".

Some criticisms:

  • They then claim that the Antarctic minke whales that they did the study on must be competing with other whales, like humpback whales that are increasing in numbers, for a limited amount of krill. We think the science behind showing those trends is very weak at best and the explanation they put forward is extremely simplistic.

  • Lots of dead bodies will provide robust data, so if you kill lots of whales then you will be able to get some information. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the number of whales killed and how they were killed. Scientific whaling is not about science, and there is no pressing conservation need that requires it to be done. (Link same as before)

I tend to agree with the critics. There is a lot of pointless slaughter for not a lot of benefit; a relatively minor finding with a fairly speculative conclusion*. And this is apparently one of the few (the first?) peer-reviewed article to appear describing the results of this 20-year experiment. Scientific whaling is obviously a sham, a cheap facade, a cynical ploy to evade the international moratorium on commercial whaling.

While there is no doubt that many in Australia care deeply about the whales, I still maintain that the Australian Government has an ulterior motive, namely reinforcing its claim to Antarctica by re-affirming its moral claim in the area. This season, rather than risk a potentially violent confrontation, Australia is sending a scientific expedition to prove it was not necessary to kill the ocean mammals to study them. Let the 'pirates of compassion' directly confront the whalers, while the government pursues legal avenues. Plus, if there is no official presence there is no pressure to stop the activists.

And make no mistake, the Treaty is failing. Already suggestions are being made to end the Treaty, under the guise of environmental protection. While the environment is feeling the effects of humanity, mainly through overfishing , allowing national claims opens the door for further exploitation to the continent. It's already happening in the rapidly degrading Arctic, it will happen down South given the slightest chance, despite good intentions and promises to the contrary. Something should be done to protect the Antarctic, I doubt this is it...

Another version of the tragedy of the commons is revealing itself and Australia is making some clever moves in the early rounds of this Great Game. Whales make a good cover story and it's popular domestic politics. Realpolitik says the game must be played, failure to do so automatically results in a loss. Unless the rules change, this is The Way the World Works.

Protecting the whales is the right thing to do, as well. Taking out the upper links of the oceanic food web will have unknown consequences on the ecosystem at-large. Further, some species of whales share brain structures that make us human, indicating the possibility of consciousness and high-level emotional functioning. Bluntly put, killing whales may be murder. Whaling in the Antarctic (or anywhere) is an ethical atrocity and should be stopped immediately (and permanently). Humans have done enough to the world around us. Let's evolve in our own thinking and draw the line here.

*Question: How do we know this isn't the result of consistently killing the biggest and best whales for the 20 years for scientific whaling, leaving only the less fit? An example of evolution in action? Or do the Japanese cull whales indiscriminately, killing whatever they see regardless of age, size or maturity?

Image: Reuters.
Also: The book Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling is a enjoyable read on the history of whaling.

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