When it comes to whaling, Japan is a rogue state.
Since 1986, there’s been a moratorium on commercial whaling that Japan has honored only in the breach. Norway and Iceland don’t honor it at all, while a few aboriginal communities get exemptions. As a consequence, during the past 20 years, the number of whales killed has steadily increased; roughly 2,000 were killed last year.
This is a vast improvement over the 80,000 whales killed in 1960, but it’s a very leaky ban. The International Whaling Commission, the 88-nation body that regulates whaling, is now considering a proposal to formally lift the moratorium, in exchange for supposedly tighter limits on newly sanctioned hunting. The idea is that a more realistic regime will save thousands of whales during the next 10 years.
But conservationists are rightly galled at a proposal that will again legitimate the killing of nature’s most majestic creatures — as harmless as they are awesome — with no guarantee that the number of whale catches will really go down substantially.
Whaling lost its Melville-esque romance long ago. Once, “iron men in wooden boats” hunted the beasts in something of an even match. Otherwise Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for the white whale wouldn’t have been so self-destructive.
The rise of steam engines, explosive harpoons and then factory ships — capable of killing and processing whales at sea — facilitated the mass slaughter of whales. The creatures had as much a chance against their hunters as bologna does against a grinder. They were killed in a decades-long movable charnel house.
In the first four decades of the 20th century, about 900,000 whales were killed just in the Southern Hemisphere. Blue whales, the largest animal on Earth, had once been too fast for whaling ships. Not in the new age. Since 1920, their population has declined by 96 percent. Many species were hunted to the brink of extinction.
It became clear the carnage didn’t even suit the interests of the hunters, who would soon be bereft of prey. Hunting became restricted, and then, in a great victory for animal conservationists, the IWC ratified the moratorium in 1986.
Why protect whales? They should be preserved as befitting anything else that provokes wonder; they are the mammalian equivalent of the Grand Canyon or of the giant redwoods. They also are incredibly long-lived creatures with a sophisticated social structure, closer to chimpanzees than to cattle.
Besides, there’s no reason to kill whales. No one has needed whale oil to light lamps for at least a century, and blubber isn’t a necessary source of nutrition in a modern society. Yet, Japan persists. It agitates against the moratorium and organizes international opposition to it, at the same time it cynically defies it.
Even in Japan, only 1 percent of the population eats whale meat routinely. The whaling program is subsidized by the government and justified as scientific research. But Japan conducts whale research the way quail hunters conduct avian studies. Japan’s program hasn’t produced any scientific breakthroughs, although meat from the whales under study makes it into restaurants and the excess into cat and dog food.
Although hunting has been greatly diminished through the years, many whale populations haven’t significantly bounced back. “History tells us that whenever commercial whaling has occurred, whale numbers have diminished very rapidly; and even when whaling stops, can take a long time to recover,” Jim McLay, New Zealand’s former commissioner to the IWC, has written. “Slow breeding rates, long life cycles and other patterns of whale life mean that, even with the moratorium, and with the added protection of two ocean sanctuaries, it will take many decades for the most depleted species to recover, if at all.”
Any deal at the IWC should tilt more strongly in the animals’ favor than the one on offer, which relies on an artificial accounting to arrive at its figures for saved whales. For decades, the creatures experienced the full fury of industrialized destruction. They still deserve a respite.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.