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April 03, 2013

Putting a Permanent Close to the Era of Whaling

If there were peaceful beasts as large as dinosaurs still roaming the Earth, would we marvel at them and go to extraordinary lengths to protect these creatures – treating them as living monuments and biological treasures? Or would we kill them for commerce or mere territorialism? 

Well, we don’t have to speculate, but just make an historical assessment of our behavior toward blue whales – the largest animal to ever live on the planet – with some of these creatures known to weigh in at 180 metric tons (and a tongue that weighs nearly 3 metric tons!) and reaching a length of 100 feet.

Minke whale with calf
Adrian Baddeley/iStock

Sadly, we went on a decades-long killing spree beginning in the late 1800s (with the invention of the steam engine, whalers could keep up with blue whales for the first time), and brought them to the edge of extinction by the mid-20th century, aided by new technologies and killing apparatuses.

Now, the results of a seven week research expedition in the frigid Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean, undertaken by the 10-nation Southern Ocean Research Partnership, offer new insights into these rarely-seen giants and eviscerate the argument advanced by the Japanese apologists for whaling in the 21st century. Japan is not trying to kill blue whales, not now, anyway, but the more we can learn about them, the better off all of the world’s whales will be. The substantial data obtained using nonlethal research methods stands in stark contrast to the lethal methods Japanese ‘scientific’ whaling employs in both efficacy and cruelty. There is simply no justification for targeting and killing hundreds of whales annually, including endangered fin and sei whales, under the guise of scientific research when such reliable, humane alternatives exist.

Taking advantage of a loophole in the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium on whaling, the agency that implements Japan’s scientific whaling program asserts that the stomach contents of the whales killed provide important biological and ecological samples that aid in their efforts to better understand the Southern Ocean ecosystem as well as the feeding habits of the whales. But data gathered from this annual slaughter – carried out under the guise of science – is just a pretense. And as whale meat stocks in Japan continue to increase while the nation’s appetite for whale declines, many Japanese citizens are wondering why their tax dollars are going to fund the program.

In contrast, the team of researchers from the Antarctic Blue Whales Project of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, of which the United States is a member, collected 57 photo identifications and recorded 26,545 calls – generating information that will be invaluable in studying these enormous yet elusive creatures, about which we know relatively little. The results of this nonlethal research will, hopefully, give us further insight into how we can protect these and other whale species so they may continue to grace our oceans, and how we can act as stewards so that future generations may share the planet with them as well.

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