Friday, February 23, 2007

No need for whaling

There has been a renewed interest in whaling recently, what with the recent IWC vote on lifting the ban on commercial whaling, and the ramming of a Japanese whaling ship, the Kaiko Maru, by a ship belonging to the marine conservation action group Sea Shepherd, making all the TV news programmes. Whether the ramming was deliberate, or not, is open to debate, as are the rights and wrongs of it. Everyone has their own views. Personally, anything which is done to necessitate a whaling vessel returning to port, as long as lives are not jeopardised, can only be a good thing. So if the ramming was deliberate, then I'd cautiously support it as direct action against what I view as a barbaric and unjustifiable industry.

Thing is, Sea Shepherd seem to be prepared to use some tactics which could cause serious harm to the people on the receiving end, such as hurling Butyric acid onto the decks of the whaling ships. I'm not sure if this is propaganda designed to discredit Sea Shepherd but, much as I decry whaling, particularly in its loathsome modern incarnation, I can not support chemical warfare against men who, whatever we may think of their industry, are, at the end of the day, just trying to earn money to support their families. Butyric acid is nasty stuff, and not merely "rancid butter" like SS claim on their website.

Assuming the acid-throwing assertion is true, Sea Shepherd may say that anyone prepared to fire an explosive harpoon into the body of a peaceful, fairly intelligent wild animal, to kill it brutally and painfully to provide meat for an almost non-existent market (let's not even discuss the risible "scientific research" pretence), deserves all they get. Well, that might be their viewpoint, but actions like throwing strong acids at people are, in my view, unjustified. Moreover, carrying out such actions risks losing a lot of the support they almost certainly have amongst the public of many nations. Killing or maiming people doesn't win supporters to your cause.

As to whaling, well it would be easy to call me a hypocrite, seeing as I support (by my eating habits) the rearing and systematic killing of animals for food. Is a whale different to a cow, or a pig, or a chicken? Well, the latter are all domesticated animals, bred down from wild ancestors, to serve as food animals. I sympathise with any animal which is killed to become food for another animal, but I see no difference between a stoat killing a rabbit, a lion an antelope, or a human a cow. Some animals have evolved to eat other animals. Humans, pigs, bears, rats, foxes and many other species are omnivores. We've evolved to be able to make use of pretty much anything edible, and as a result, other animal species are a naturally intrinsic component of our diet.

I won't digress here into the rights or wrongs of farming animals for meat. I'll state my opinions at the end of this blog.

So, what about whales? Why shouldn't we hunt them? Because they're intelligent? So are pigs, probably not far away on the scale from even the brighter whale species. So are octopus, but we'll happily stew them in wine. Fear and pain aren't functions of intelligence. Witness a mouse suffering death by a thousand bites at the hands of a cat. Not a particularly intelligent animal, but its pain and stress and suffering are manifest. Intelligence alone is not a sufficient criterion.

Beacuse they're so beautiful, huge, mysterious? Please. Looks are nothing. All life is pretty much equal in my eyes, but Giant Squid should count themselves lucky they're so terrifyingly hideous to most people's eyes (and taste like ammonia).

No, the reason whaling should be stopped is that, simply, there's no need.

Whales of all species were decimated by the introduction of intensive factory whaling fleets. Most large whale species are still, to this day, rare animals, compared with their numbers even a century ago. The claims that Minke and Fin whales are now at sustainable levels has yet to be verified, and their numbers are still way, way, below the populations of the 19th century.

But suppose the Japanese, and the Icelanders, and the Norweigians, and the suddenly numerous other nations clamouring for the whaling moratorium to be lifted, get their way. What then? Will these slow breeding giants be able to maintain their populations at present levels, with even modest hunting? I doubt it. And who's to say, when the whalers are out in the open ocean, that they might not 'mistakenly' harpoon a Humpback, or a Blue, or a Right? Once flensed, nobody would know. The log would say another Minke. Do they do DNA analysis on all catches? I don't know.

The fact is that, in general, we don't need to hunt and kill wild animals for our food. Particularly not rare, elusive animals such as these. OK, we hunt Red Deer in the UK. Yes, we do that. But we do it because we long ago killed off their natural predators, the wolves, so we have to, in effect, take the place of the wolf, or else the exploding deer populations will strip the highlands of their vegetation, forests will die back, the ecosystem which the deer form a part of, will slide off balance, or more so than it already is. We hunt rabbits, a species described as non-native, but which has been present in our country for centuries, so might as well be native. But they are not industries. They are haphazard, ad hoc, small scale hunts, and the prey are profligate, they are everywhere, to the point of being a nuisance. It's as much a cull as a hunt.

There are something like 16 billion humans on this planet. All these hairless apes simply can't live off other wild species, and we don't allow cannibalism, so what do we do? We farm. If we hunted for our meat, there'd be nothing left. In those areas of the Earth where 'bushmeat' is still a significant part of the local diet, such is the reduced nature of the habitat for the wild animals being hunted, and so efficient are the weapons and traps used by the hunters, that species are being decimated to the point of disappearance. It's not sustainable.

The oceans are no different to any other major habitat. If we start to hunt the larger (meatier), slower breeding animals which live there, we will, inevitably, drive them to the point of extinction. Look at the way stocks of common food fish have been expoited almost to the point of commercial non-viability. Cod, Herring, Haddock, Tuna. These are species which numbered in millions and which were, not so long since, viewed as pretty much inexhaustible. Yet we've managed to remove them in such numbers that they are, in some areas, almost absent. Do we want the same to happen to whales? It would happen a lot faster than with fish.

Perhaps the Japanese feel that the whales are there to be exploited, as are all other species, on land or in the sea. If they all get caught, to the point of extinction, that's unfortunate, but hey ho, a whale left swimming is a resource left unused. That's a cultural viewpoint which is rarely echoed by the Western mind, but in my opinion it's a lazy and arrogant way to think and it needs to change. Japan is advanced enough to ditch such barbarous arrogance, just as we've ditched bear-baiting, bull-baiting and hunting with hounds.

Let us also not forget that currently, most of the meat from the whales caught ends up in pet food. Some is sold for human consumption but public tastes have changed, even in Japan, and whale meat is no longer popular even there. It's a dead industry being kept alive as a matter of principle and a misguided sense of tradition. We whale because we can, not because we must or should.

The suddenly plentiful and eager African coastal nations who are demanding the right to take up whaling, no doubt see it as a way of making money, and many of them are poor places indeed. But suppose they wanted to kill their elephants, or their rhinos, gorillas or lions? Is the poverty of the nation a reason to look the other way and say "Oh, go on then..."

Below: a modern harpoon cannon, loaded with an explosive tipped harpoon, on South Georgia

There is NO NEED for anyone to hunt these wild, rare animals for food. The whaling industry is about political and cultural posturing, not about feeding hungry mouths. Sorry Japan, if whaling is integral to your culture, then fuck your culture. You need to change.

Even if whales were as common as rabbits, I'd still be opposed to it, if only because of the brutal method of killing. When a harpoon explodes inside a whale, understandably often rendering it semi- or un- conscious, there is no easy way of determining whether it's actually dead or not, and, seemingly, it often isn't.

More to the point, if the kill is not clean, then there's no way to dispatch the mortally wounded animal, given both its size, and the fact that it is rolling about in often freezing cold, heaving seas. It is left to die slowly, over minutes or even as long as half an hour, or occasionally, it has been suggested, hauled onto the factory ship, stunned and weak but still living, to be cut up as it lies, immobile and mute, on the steel deck. The whaling boats are meant to re-harpoon the whale if the first one fails to kill it, or to use a high-velocity rifle to administer a coup de grace, but for reasons given, this is often messy and ineffective.

Below: an explosive harpoon detonates inside the body of a Minke whale

Below: a mortally wounded Sperm whale spouts blood from its blowhole

Below: a dead(?) whale is hauled on board a whaling ship

Whaling is an ancient industry, with proud traditions, fascinating history and even romance surrounding it. But the whaling of today bears little resemblance to that of the 19th century, when men were lowered into the sea in small boats to throw hand-harpoons at the surfacing whales. It was probably no less agonising for the whale - death by the sword as opposed to death by the bomb, but at least the whales had a chance. The whole thing is now so one-sided, the whale is doomed as soon as it's sighted.

The following links all lead to sites featuring whaling, largely taking an anti-whaling stance. Please visit them for a look at their argument. If you want the other side, the pro-whaling side, it's easy enough to find. I make no pretence of balance. I'm resolutely anti-whaling and always have been.

Below: a summary of my opinions on farming, killing and eating animals

OK, we can choose not to eat meat, but it's natural that we do. So I'm not opposed to eating meat, and thereby, killing animals to provide that meat. What I do expect, and hope for, is that the animals I ultimately eat have a good quality of life, up to the point of slaughter, and that the slaughter is carried out as quickly and with as little suffering and pain as possible. Given that a pack of wolves will often tuck into a still struggling caribou, not bothering with the coup de grace before filling their bellies, the majority of the UKs food animals perhaps have a relatively easy death, if the correct slaughter procedures are adhered to. I do concur that, for the period immediately leading up to slaughter, and the seconds of the slaughter itself, however, the animal is both stressed and frightened. I know, I've seen it first hand in an abbatoir near Leeds.

Below: Chickens hung up to have their throats cut - probably the least humane non-religious slaughter method in the UK

Below: a frightened bullock restrained for stunning, prior to slaughter

Below: a stunned sheep has its throat cut in an abbatoir

We're so far removed from plants evolutionarily speaking, that we scarcely even consider them as living things, but as all organised multicellular organisms do, they struggle and fight for survival when threatened, and 'suffer' in their own way when killed, boiled or swallowed alive into the acids of our stomach. Bottom line: unless we can photosynthesise, or metabolise inorganic chemicals, we rely on the killing and eating of other living organisms to sustain our own lives. Every meal involves the sacrifice of a life.

Given the necessity to kill, I regard it as far preferable that animals are reared humanely, and killed in a strictly controlled manner, as quickly as possible, and that we do not plunder the limited populations of wild animals the planet harbours. You may disagree, I don't really care. I arrived at this position over many years, including 13 as a vegetarian.


  1. Overall, a well thought blog and one which I generally agree with.
    While I am reluctant to agree with extreme tactics I guess there comes a point where motivated people have few other options. The systems have tended to have been designed where the rich and powerful hold sway with Governments stifling any attempt to bring change. They often fly in the face of their own people but they hand them crumbs, patronise them and feed them basic untruths from their media staff. The public tend to be pawns in a bigger game!
    Given the urgencies we are facing on many issues I have to reluctantly give qualified support for slightly more “extreme moves” than those our elected representatives call “proper”.
    Sea Shepherd and its supporters could, like the whales, die a lingering death on the altar of public apathy and indifference. The theorists who tend to guide Governments through their bureaucratic armies will never “stick their necks out” until hypothesis can be proven and credibility can be sustained – by then the pressing issues are such that it is too late for these drone-like people to rectify a problem that has gone from bad to worse.
    I am loathe to concede more extreme action but, if anything, the people fighting environmental causes, hunger and World poverty, etc have been far too docile – they have been trampled.
    I liken the position to a see-saw. The extreme elements are at each end with the politicians generally trying to keep in the fulcrum – the point of balance, the mushy hopeless territory. The vested interests, exploiters, etc will never do anything but seek the ultimate return – they tend to want all and know that given their financial power they usually get it. As the extreme, but often more enlightened, unselfish elements move to retrieve some semblance of a more enlightened outcome the point of balance, the fulcrum, shifts and the politicians then can move progressively to the exploitation end of the see-saw. Sadly this old campaigner has experienced that many, many times. It is also a situation where the public are never really aware of what is going on.
    I say bravo to Sea Shepherd – give the deceitful, selfish whaling industry hell! They have “bought off” small cash strapped nations, used every devious tactic they can employ and ignored the feelings of the wider World community. It is time to act! If subtle moves and diplomacy produced no result I say go for the jugular. Extreme, yes, but only then will the conservation movement be taken seriously.

  2. Hey Bob, thanks for your comment. It's great to get a real debate rather than the usual 'Nice Blog mate' comment.
    I suppose I was thinking in terms of the people on the receiving end of the acid throwing being merely the labourers and deckhands. The people whom I wouldn't give a stuff about, the ones in control of the ships, and the industry, and the politically corrupt system that supports it despite its moribund nature; they never get on the receiving end of such treatment.
    I guess anyone who signs on as a crew member on a whaling ship is aware of the nature of the industry, and that they are putting themselves in the front line. But giving acid burns to a deckhand or a harpooneer isn't gonna stop the ship or the whaling.
    It seems to me they're targeting the little guys which is a waste of time, and potentially causing suffering without any positive outcome.
    Now, ramming the ship, I'm all in favour of. That kind of drastic or extreme action, I do support. If they could sink the bastards, I'd be with them all the way, so long as it didn't involve anyone getting killed.
    I wonder, if Sea Shepherd did manage to wreck or sink a whaling vessel, would they be accused of piracy? I wonder what action would be taken against them, and by whom? Maybe the Japanese would send gunboats along with their whaling fleets, like the Icelanders did against the Uk in the 70s 'Cod Wars'.
    I think we're pretty much of the same mind here Bob. I just think that extreme action has to have a significant benefit, and putting a crew member into sick bay wouldn't affect the slaughter of the whales one bit. Target the ships, and the industry as a whole, or the Japanese aconomy, yes, but individual people, probably not.
    Once again, thanks.


Sorry about the verification bollocks but I was getting so much spam!