A Victory for the Whalers, a Defeat for Humanity

The IWC's decision to retain its ban on whaling does not mean that the killings will stop. Quite the reverse

My generation has witnessed a vast change in the
way we see whales. When I was born, in 1958, Britain was still a whaling
nation. Ships would arrive in my hometown of Southampton laden with
processed whale oil and meat, destined for margarine, plant fertiliser
and pet food.

As I grew up, in the 1960s, attitudes changed.
Our eyes were opened to the slaughter of cetaceans in the Southern Ocean
and elsewhere. At its peak, this cull far surpassed that of the
19th-century industry commemorated by Herman Melville in Moby Dick. In
one season alone, 1960-61, more whales died than in 150 years of Yankee
whaling: 74,365 animals, one tenth of the total death toll for the 20th
century. The blue whale, the fin whale, the grey whale, the right whale
and the humpback - the largest creatures that have ever lived on our
planet -- all came to within a hair's breadth of extinction.

Out of that horror came a new voice -- the whale's.
More than anything else, it was Roger Payne's 1967 recording of the
mating calls of the humpback -- a fluting, sonorous threnody for its
species -- that sensitised the world to what was happening. Payne is
perhaps the one person who most directly affected the fate of the whale.
The album, The Song of the Humpback Whale, made the charts, and in
the process became the emotive soundtrack to the Save the Whale campaign
of the 1970s.

Save the Whale. It's a phrase which became
hackneyed with overuse, a pejorative shorthand for liberal consciences.
How appalling, then, that in the year 2010, it should be pressed into
service again, to fight the whaling nations: Norway and Iceland, who
exempted themselves from the 1986 moratorium instituted by the
International Whaling Commission (IWC), and Japan, which hunts whales
under the guise of "scientific research".

I am
completely torn by this week's events in Morocco, where talks broke
down. In my heart, I agree with those who have embraced the news that
this year's negotiations of the IWC have broken up, and that the
moratorium would not be lifted (as the US proposed in a desperate
attempt to break the impasse). Yet reason says something else. If we do
not exert some kind of new control, the whalers will be able to go on
with their slaughter unrestrained. Membership of the IWC is voluntary,
and the ban was only ever intended to be temporary. Japan, which has
been assiduously buying the votes of nations with no interest in whaling
(only in the aid Japan offers in turn), will continue to press its
case, having invested millions of dollars in its campaign. Geoffrey
Palmer, New Zealand's Commissioner at the IWC, has proposed a year-long
cooling off period. In the meantime, more whales will die.

We stand at a crossroads for cetaceans. We see the
fragile existence of these animals as a barometer of ecological
threat. As symbols of an endangered world, they evoke, and provoke,
anthropomorphism on a scale equal to their size and supposed
intelligence. To some this is so much New Age mush.

But if you have been confronted, as I was, with a
gigantic female sperm whale in the waters off the Azores, her sonar
clicks scanning my body as I hung there in the ocean, you might believe
otherwise. What do you say when a creature that big (and possessed of
the largest brain of any animal alive) comes close enough to touch, then
turns to look you directly in the eye? It is a gaze suffused with
sentience. Scientists such as Hal Whitehead, of Dalhousie University in
Nova Scotia -- who has worked on sperm whales for three decades -- now
believe that these animals create complex social structures, using those
brains whose highly developed neocortices indicate the capability for
communication, tool use and even abstract thought.

During that encounter -- as in many others I have had
with whales over the past 10 years -- I was vividly reminded of what we
have done to them, and their world. From the humpback feeding grounds of
Cape Cod to the deep waters of Kaikoura, where even bigger male sperm
whales gather, I've seen whales faced with new and insidious threats.
These animals live in a world of sound yet are assailed by the sheer
noise we make in the water: from commercial shipping to military sonar.
Their food sources are being affected by global warming and acidifying
oceans. Smaller cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoises perish as
"bycatch" in fish nets.

Larger whales die,
caught in fishing gear. Fifty per cent of North Atlantic right whales --
the most endangered of all large whales, with a population of fewer than
400 -- show signs of such entanglements. And in one of the most shocking
of the latest scientific findings, it has been suggested that sperm
whales are inhaling heavy metals from coastal chemical plants they pass
on their migrations. Like the cetaceans being washed up dead in the Gulf
of Mexico, they are victims of pollution.

Conservationists and scientists do all they can to
draw attention to and ameliorate such effects. But this week in Morocco,
their combined wisdom, and that of the 88 nations which subscribe to
the IWC, had an even more onerous duty: to decide the fate of the 1,500
whales that die purposefully at the hands of human beings each year.

Norway, Iceland and Japan argue that their critics
are subject to sentiment and hypocrisy. There is no difference, they
say, between eating whales and consuming pigs or cows. But there is a
difference, one that they conveniently ignore, and which is summed up in
three innocuous-seeming letters: TTD.

stand for Time To Death - the amount of time a hunted whale takes to
die. An explosive grenade is shot into the animal's cranium, supposedly
killing it outright. Yet in practice, this does not always happen. You
cannot guarantee the humane slaughter of a whale on the high seas. Some
have to be finished off with gunshots. Others are dragged backwards to
drown them. They may take hours to die, in what we can only imagine must
be extreme agony.

If domestic animals were to
be slaughtered in this way, we would simply not countenance it. Yet
thousands of highly evolved and sentient creatures die painful deaths
each year -- not only in the remote waters of the Southern Ocean (a
declared whale sanctuary) but also in our own backyard, the North Sea.

We cannot condone such actions; that much is clear.
Yet I would agree that the failure of the IWC to reach an agreement this
week is actually a disaster for whales. It is a Pyrrhic victory for
those who lobbied so vocally, and with such good intentions, for the ban
to be maintained. We are back to square one. Back to the Japanese and
their "scientific research", back to the trade in whale meat, back to
the slaughter.

It is one of the worst quandaries
any conservationist has had to face. Must some whales die in order that
the greater number be saved? It is a cetacean judgement of Solomon, and
the delegates of the IWC have avoided it. Their indecision has

Human politics ensure that today,
and tomorrow, and for years to come, people will still be killing
whales. And like the violence and torture visited on human beings by
human beings, it seems that is the intolerable predicament in which we
are all complicit. Unless, that is, we start to listen to that plaintive
song, echoing through the oceans of the world.

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