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Whaling nations are claiming that whales, including sperm whales, are depriving humans of food by competing with commercial fisheries for fish stocks.
Photo : Chris Johnson

June 7, 2004
Fishing for a scapegoat - Are whales competing with humans for dwindling fish stocks?

Log Transcript

This summer, the International Whaling Commission (the IWC) meeting will be held in Sorrento, Italy. Over the next two months, Ocean Alliance President, Dr. Roger Payne and Odyssey Chief Scientist, Dr. Simone Padigada will be attending and reporting on the events of these meetings.

Most people assume that whales are saved because of the worldwide moratorium that has been in place since 1986. They are unaware that: 1) whaling continues today; 2) it is on the increase; and 3) that the whalers are currently killing four species of large whales.

Why do countries still want to hunt whales? And why are some countries still allowed to hunt them? The first question is easy: it is obvious that profit is the principle motive that drives countries to continue whaling during the moratorium. However, there are also more complicated reasons, some of which are hidden under a smoke-screen of virtuous claims and which are further obscured by flawed science. In some cases the reasons seem to involve cultural pride, for which motive, nations will invest major sums.

The things that enable whalers to keep hunting during the moratorium are loopholes in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling- the agreement that is administered by the IWC. One of these loopholes allows member nations to set their own quotas on whale kills if those kills are done for scientific purposes. Thus, all a nation need do is change the name of what they are doing from 'commercial whaling' to 'scientific whaling' - and that nation can issue permits to its whalers to go whaling anywhere and any time they wish, including during the moratorium.

The International Whaling Commission also permits aboriginal subsistence hunts among indigenous peoples who have traditionally hunted whales, and who still use relatively primitive hunting techniques. The nations that hunt whales this way include the US, Canada, Denmark and Russia.

A third loophole has been exploited by Norway to enable her to keep whaling during the moratorium. This loophole allows any country to file an objection to any ruling it does not like that was passed by a majority of IWC member nations. The only stipulation is that the nation has to express its objection within 90 days of the IWC meeting that passed the ruling. If it does so it becomes perfectly legal for that country to ignore the ruling. So, back when the moratorium was first passed, Norway simply filed an objection to it within the prescribed period, and so she can continue to hunt whales legally for as long as she likes. Japan did not file such an objection (a mistake she probably now regrets) and neither did Iceland. So, in order to get around the moratorium, those countries have had to choose the Scientific Whaling loophole. They claim that it is necessary to kill whales in order to carry out food web studies that will let them learn what role whales play in ocean ecosystems so they can "put the management of whale stocks on more rational ground." They also do genetics research to assess how closely related different whale populations are.

Incidentally, here at Ocean Alliance we also research, feeding and relatedness of populations, but we do it without killing the whales we study. Instead we collect whale feces from which one can learn what a whale ate, and we take small skin samples that can be analyzed for their genetic makeup (this latter approach employs a non-lethal darting technique). Countries like Japan continue to experience global criticism from many quarters–including from within the International Whaling Commission. The IWC's Scientific Committee has repeatedly stated that Japan's lethal research is not necessary. Indeed, every year since Japan started its so-called scientific whaling program the IWC scientific committee has expressed its formal opinion that the kind of data Japan is gathering from their lethal research is not needed for the work of the IWC.

Despite continued opposition, whaling nations, continue to hunt whales under the guise of science. Japan is now killing a total of 1000 minke, Sei, Bryde's and sperm whales in the Antarctic and North Pacific every year. Norway (and more recently Iceland) take minke whales in the north Atlantic, with Iceland promising to add fin whales to their target list next season. In reality the hunt is nothing more than commercial whaling under another name. The arguments for killing whales for scientific purposes are based on spin and on what might be called smokescreen science. However it seems that the whalers have got a winner here. Their argument is just close enough to everyone's experience to sound plausible and its flaws are just arcane enough to make the effort to understand them daunting to most people. It has become a wonderful way for the whalers to convince nations that killing whales is actually a necessity.

The whalers' argument portrays whales as voracious eating machines that must be culled to protect commercial fisheries. Though entirely without merit scientifically, this propaganda is proving devastating in its effectiveness. It carries a further ingenious consequence: for indeed, some research may be necessary to disprove the whalers' absurd allegations.

The whalers' target audience is primarily poorer oceanic island nations whose economies are almost entirely dependent on commercial fisheries. The argument serves as a scare tactic, which, along with judiciously applied financial aid, has succeeded in persuading several countries to support the meritless Japanese viewpoint at the yearly International Whaling Commission Meetings as Japan attempts to overturn the ban on commercial whaling there (they get closer to doing so with each passing year).

Whaling interests use a wide range of propaganda techniques, both in their own countries and internationally, to promote a final solution for the 'whale problem'. Led by Japan, whaling nations are now claiming that the whales are depriving humanity of food. As an added bonus, whales can now be blamed for the collapse of global fish stocks, thus, neatly transforming commercial fishers from being the cause of over fishing, to being the victims of over fishing (by those ever-so voracious whales). In this way, whales have become a scapegoat for human over fishing.

Whale hunts are now undertaken for the benefit of humanity–the whalers now become heroes who are saving the world's fish stocks by getting rid of those pesky whales. Unfortunately, as groundless as it is, many people in high places are listening.

Over the past four years the Odyssey crew has encountered Japanese whaling interests hard at work in several countries, including Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Seychelles and Mauritius. Their primary objective seemed clear enough: to distribute propaganda to Fisheries officials about the 'threat' whales pose to the sustainability of their countries' fishing industries. Fortunately, the Odyssey happened to visit these remote regions at the time so that we had a chance to counter Japan's claims and to supply these remote nations' Fisheries officers with more accurate information.

Blaming whales for a decline in fish stocks is a brilliant stroke. Not only does is seem to vindicate fishers for their years of irresponsible overexploitation, it also paints the whalers in a caring light. They really are concerned for the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people around the world who are dependent on fish as their primary source of animal protein! At the end of the day, the argument for killing whales sounds persuasive to many. There is only one flaw : it is either grossly exaggerated, or simply not true.

When Japanese scientists claim that the world's remaining whale populations are consuming an estimated 280 to 500 million tons of food worldwide, it seems to be a deliberate effort to mislead people into thinking that whales are competing for fish with us. They leave unsaid the fact that the food baleen whales consume is overwhelmingly krill, for which there is no significant market, and that in the case of sperm whales it is benthic squid for which there is no market at all, since we don't know how to catch them.

But 500 million tons sounds like an awful lot of fish, especially when you consider that we humans take no more than a sixth of that from the oceans annually. The obvious conclusion derived from such a statement is most likely to be that whales are competing directly with us for food from the sea. Of course, you won't find any giant squid for sale at your local fishmonger, and the market for krill is invisible to you and me. Therefore, even though the great whales eat a lot of food, what they eat hardly overlaps with the commercial fisheries on which humanity depend.

Some baleen whale species, particularly those in the Northern Hemisphere (e.g. humpbacks, and minkes) do eat small schooling fish, some of which are commercially valuable, yet most scientists agree that the quantities taken are insignificant. So although what the whalers claim is not an outright lie, they are clearly aiming to mislead, hoping we will draw our own, wholly incorrect conclusion- i.e. that whales are eating almost six times as much fish as humans. As one prominent whale scientist put it after studying the consumption of salmon fingerlings by humpback whales in Southeastern Alaskan waters: "I doubt that you could design a test sensitive enough to show any impact by the whales on the overall salmon population."

Commercial whaling over the past century decimated most large whale species, pushing some to the brink of extinction and others to levels that today still threaten their recovery. Even so, research is showing that overall; whale biomass is increasing (although it has not been confirmed for all species). The reported increases however, have not brought populations of most large whales back to more then a small fraction of what they once were. Nonetheless, evidence of increases in some populations combined with the increasing global demand for fresh fish has rekindled the debate over the resumption of commercial whaling.

Whaling nations argue that if whale stocks are permitted to recover they will threaten food security by 'distorting' the marine food chain. Concerns are raised that if whales are allowed to recover to their former numbers they will compete directly with humans by feeding on commercially valuable fish, or indirectly by competing for the prey on which the same commercially valuable fish feed. However, it seems unlikely that their recovery will constitute a major impact on the fish species that are currently important commercially.

An example of this point is tuna. In the South Pacific tuna appears to be the whales' closest potential competitor. However, there is no direct evidence that any form of food competition is occurring between them, simply because the food webs that support tuna are different from those that support whales.

Tunas feed primarily in the tropical and sub-tropical waters of the world (an exception is the bluefin tuna), and usually at depths of less than 500 meters. Tuna feed on a combination of fish, squid and crustaceans. In contrast, most baleen whales eat little if anything in tropical or sub-tropical waters. Instead they migrate to Antarctic and sub-Antarctic (or Arctic and sub-Arctic) waters to feed on krill, and copepods . Those whale species that occupy tropical and sub-tropical waters but do not migrate (e.g. female and immature sperm whales), prey almost exclusively on cephalopods (squid), which they only find at great depth where competition with human fishers is highly unlikely or simply non-existent. While the only resident baleen whale species in warm waters, the Bryde's whale, feeds mainly on krill.

Seals, dolphins, sea birds and predatory fish also eat small fish. Interestingly, it is the predatory fish that are generally considered to take the greatest share of smaller fish. Research by Bax (1991) reports that the ratio between small fish eaten by predatory fish and those taken by human fishers ranges from 2:1 to 35:1 depending on the area. In the same study, marine mammal takes, although higher then those of seabirds were usually similar to the takes of human fishers. They were always lower than what the predatory fish ate.

Before the advent of industrialized fishing, the marine environment, including whales, predatory fish and the millions of tons of primary productivity on which it all depends, existed in some kind of dynamic equilibrium. Therefore, in the past when most whale populations were 9 times larger than they are today (in the case of blue whales, perhaps as much as 99 times larger), there was enough fish, squid and plankton to sustain them, with enough left over to support far greater stocks of global fish than are currently available to and exploited by modern day fisheries. The problem is not the whales but over fishing by human fishers. In the Pacific Ocean, the annual take in the 1940's was about 2 million tons. By the early 1990's this figure had risen to 50 million tons where it has either remained stable or, in the case of areas where stocks were over fished, declined.

Contrary to what the whaling nations would have us believe there is only a small overlap between whales and human fisheries, and in most cases no overlap. But humans are insatiable. We may soon develop the technology and the will to catch both deep ocean squid and krill. If we are already using whales as 'scapegoats' to carry the blame for depleting the oceans of our target fish stocks, what will happen to whales when we actually do start targeting their food?

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from Marmaris, Turkey.


Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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