Published on
the Guardian/UK

So Japan Can't Hunt Whales Anymore? That Doesn't Mean They're Safe

What will the court ban mean for whales in European or US waters? And for those killed by pollution, bycatch or ship-strike?

Photo: Jeannie Fletcher/cc/flickr

Flying high over the Derwent, our tiny aircraft, bound for the Tasmanian south-west wilderness, almost tipped its wings in salute. Far below us, heading for its honorary home port in Hobart after another season spent in the Southern Ocean combating the Japanese whalers, was the Bob Barker, Sea Shepherd's flagship, "back from saving our whales", said Fin, our young pilot.

For Australians, today's victory in the International Court of Justice – that Japan "has not acted in conformity with several clauses of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling" – is an almost personal one. But for the rest of us, the judgment is equally important in the ongoing battle between economic and environmental forces.

Whose whales are they anyway? From sentient marine mammals to apparently downed airliners and the drastic effects of climate change, the world's oceans, and what we do to them, may be the last great battleground.

In Australia, the issues over whaling seem cut and dried. From the mother-and-calf humpback skeletons that hang like talismans over Sydney's Darling Harbour to the living whales which swim up and down the continent's coasts on their twice-annual migratory routes, there's a real and emotional attachment to these southern leviathans. Not least because, more than anywhere else, Australia is witness to the benefits of the 1983 moratorium on the hunting of great whales, as implemented by the International Whaling Commission.

As the captain of a Sydney whalewatch boat boasted to me, there's a 10% increase in new calves being brought back into Australian waters, year on year (although they are certainly not all surviving). And this past season, no fewer than six whales found their way into Sydney Harbour. Perhaps they felt a sense of asylum there. Sea Shepherd enjoys extraordinary support in Australia.

And yet – there's an historical and far more ambivalent context to note here, one that echoes the tensions between east and west. Japan's claim to commercial whaling as a cultural expression is surely a shaky one, since it only began large-scale whaling in the 20th century – but it was taught to them by European whalers. Then came the second world war and the horrors of the nuclear bomb. Having reduced the Japanese nation to submission, the occupying Allied powers turned decommissioned Japanese vessels into whaling ships, and – with western observers aboard – were sent out to kill whales and use their meat to feed a starving nation.

Now we turn around and tell them it's all wrong. The Japanese fear that their fishing industry is next (quite rightly: fishing blue-fin tuna is close to sending the species extinct). And they point out that the US, fierce upholder of the 1983 moratorium, undermines its moral position by allowing indigenous Inuit to hunt bowhead whales in the Arctic.

While the primary targets of the Japanese, like the Norwegians, are minke whales, so plentiful that they call them the cockroaches of the sea, (there may be up to 1.5 million minkes in the oceans), bowheads are rare, and with extraordinary lifetimes of up to 300 years, making them the longest living mammals. Meanwhile, here in the west, unchallenged by international courts, Norway, Iceland and Greenland continue whaling. In the Faroes, in "European" waters, thousands of pilot whales die each year, driven from the open Atlantic on to the islands' beaches and butchered. What will today's decision mean for these whale hunts being carried out on our own doorstep? Many more whales and dolphins die each year through pollution, bycatch, ship-strike: who is going to legislate for them?

At the recent Encountering the Anthropocene conference convened by the University of Sydney, an Indigenous elder described to me some of the allusive stories of his people's empathetic relationships with whales. Once on land, humpbacks took human form and did good, and evil. These animals were not impossible symbols of righteousness, but sinners, like ourselves. There was no Manichean divide, but a subtler sense of our relationship to other sentient animals, the narrative we share. Perhaps that's the message we need to take away from today's result: none of us can occupy the unsteady moral high ground without looking down into the depths.

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Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare is a writer and cultural historian. He is the author of Leviathan or, The Whale and The Sea Inside. He blogs here. @philipwhale

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