forum discussion #15

Whaling – Politics, Science & Ethics

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Listen to a story by reporter Eric Niiler, followed by our interview with Stephen Palumbi.
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Our guest in the Science Forum is marine biologist Stephen Palumbi of Stanford University. He uses genetics to study whale populations.

The International Whaling Commission is considering legalizing commercial whaling by some countries, but at a very limited scale. Palumbi says that the current proposal would fail to protect endangered whale species.
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You can ask Palumbi your own questions. Join the conversation. It’s just to the right.

  • Do you think all whaling should be banned? Why?
  • What role can lay citizens play in conserving whales?
  • How can modern genetic techniques be used to crack down on whale smuggling?

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Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

    Hi, and welcome to this discussion about whaling and whales in the modern world. What concerns do you have about whaling, and what do you want to know abut the new plan to open commercial whaling? Do you have any ideas about ways to stop whale smuggling? Are ancient cultural uses of whales part of your heritage? I welcome any other thoughts and questions in an open dialogue.

  2. Eric Newton

    I think the story on the World indicated that by lifting the current ban and allowing a limited hunt and closing the scientific harvest loophole, that there will be less whales killed than is currently going on. Is that true? I think there should be a complete and total ban on whaling, is this new IWC action better than what we have now?

  3. Eric Newton

    Thank you for your work on whales. This story provided hope to me and others who get overwhelmed by the senseless slaughter of endangered animals. I appreciate your considered opinions and measured language regarding whaling issues. What do you think is the best way lay citizens can promote conserving whales?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

      Eric – The proposal being discussed would allow about 1800 whales to be killed next year, including all commercial and aboriginal hunts – this is about the same or a little less than all the scientific hunting and hunting by Norway and aboriginal hunts this year. But there is a bit of a sleight-of-hand. The proposal includes 100 fin whales, which are so much bigger than the small minke whales taken now that the world-wide supply of whale meat will – in a rough guess – rise by 25% or so.

      The proposal is better than now in that it would control scientific whaling. It is not the solution it should be because it does not control accidental whaling, smuggling or account for climate change.

      • Sidney Holt

        Steve: it is not correct that the proposed “deal” will stop “scientific whaling”. A change to the Schedule of the IWC Convention to that effect and/or recorded statements do not over-ride the unlimited provision for scientific permits in the actual convention. That it will be controlled is an illusion and, indeed, a deception. I’ve written about this in my pieces on mywhaleweb.com

        You write that japan did not invent vote-buying, what they call their Vote Consolidation Programme. Your words might, unfortunately, be taken to support japan’s contention that the many accessions of non-whaling countries to the IWC were “bought”. I know that to be a lie, at least from my involvement with Indian Ocean states in the 1980s, and recent accessions of EU states. Sidney

  4. Troy Nave

    My understanding is that – in the 19080′s – the Japanese delegation to the IWC used political muscle to leverage some of the smaller IWC member countries into voting for the 400 minke whale “scientific research” loophole. My first question: is that correct? Second, if so, is the current paradigm one in which smaller countries can vote their conscience without fear of retribution from more powerful IWC countries? Along the same lines, does the IWC have the necessary teeth to regulate and carry out appropriate punishment for countries which flout regulations?

  5. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

    Troy – it is true that there is influence exerted at the IWC by richer countries over those with fewer resources. I am guessing the practice was not invented by the Japanese. The IWC has the capacity to build into its plans the ability to deny whaling quotas in case of infractions. The current proposal has just such a mechanism for boats that exceed the quota. But this is not applied to a nation as a whole, nor is the mechanism invoked if a country fails to provide data on the DNA identity of killed whales. This latter information is crucial if smuggling is to be detected and stopped. So, the issue is that a new agreement could be written to be ironclad and have consequences for infractions – if the IWC delegates have the gumption to do it this way.

  6. Rama Gitananda

    I think that focusing on the endangered status of whales is actually less important than an ideal of not slaughtering highly intelligent creatures. This should include whales, dolphins and chimpanzees at minimum.

    As to the whaling practices of ancient cultures –
    why do we not respect the cultural practices of cannibals? For instance, if a tribe decided to kill and feast upon any child born mentally retarded (and therefore less intelligent than a whale or dolphin), should we respect that? If we aspire to a real world community then we can’t be afraid to make cultural judgments.

  7. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    I’m curious to know how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill might affect whales. Is that part of the Gulf of Mexico an important area for some whale species? Is oil particularly toxic to whales?

    Many thanks for participating in the Science Forum!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

      David – The Gulf of Mexico is home to many whale and dolphin species – sperm whales, orcas, dolphins galore – and spilled oil would be a serious problem. But in addition, think about the new interest in drilling for oil in the Artic, and whether you imagine drilling there would be safer. The Deepwater oil spill is a wake up call that oil and gas development can be highly risky and that those risks have been minimized in the public debate about energy.

  8. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

    Sidney Holt, commenting above, is one of the world’s leading authorities on whales and whaling and has commented extensively on the weaknesses of the current IWC proposal. See for example the statement from the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (http://www.asoc.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=ZWgxhfELLR4%3D&tabid=36).

  9. We have noticed that international corporate fishing boats have made a huge impact on the whales in our area in the gulf of maine. The big trawlers in the past years have cleaned out all of the herring and small fish that the blue fin tuna and assorted whales eat. By stripping this out the whales are having a harder time finding food, and when they do find it the corporate boats charge back in and clean the supply out again. We have in the past had to resort to calling the other eco-whale tourist boats via cell phone or talking in code to help each other find the whales. We have called our congress representatives and the National Fisheries to complaint and have gotten nowhere.
    My question is why was that not discussed also? It is a HUGE issue.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

      Dear Captain Motgan – the points you raise are important, but they are not under the jurisdiction of the IWC. It is national governments that control activities in their own waters – as long as whales are not hunted. But keep raising the issue whenever you can – it helps undercut an untrue claim by the Japanese that whales compete with us for food. Your observation seems to show just the opposite.

  10. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    Hello Stephen,
    You asked if anybody has ideas to stop whale smuggling. I don’t even know enough about this issue to have ideas… Is anything being done currently? Are there proposals out there for how smuggling might be addressed? What technologies could help?
    Thanks!
    Elsa

  11. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    Also, to what extent is research whaling really research and to what extent is it a loophole? i.e. is meat from those whales sold, and are scientific studies on those whales actually performed and published?

  12. Hi Steve and all: Thank you for the forum.
    The IWC was set up as a more of a “fisheries management”entity. Early policies were based on whales as fish (i.e. stocks) rather than on whales as marine mammals that have a different biology. The legacy of that management, and the diverging views among nations on what constitutes management and exploitation still haunt IWC. Re-setting/broadening the IWC foundation and more explicitly including e.g. climate change and recovery would in my view help. There is also a fundamental disconnect between fisheries management and carrying out science- which is a formal process of acquiring knowledge.Indeed the scientific meetings are held before the political/decision making ones More time together for scientists and decision-makers might help.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

      Hi Deborah, You are right that the IWC is not a conservation organization – it is a group set up to further the ability of nations to conduct whaling. The moratorium has been largely successful in stopping the unsustainable killing of most whale populations. But the data needed to start whaling sustainably are very hard to come by – how many whales are there? How many offspring do they have? Will these offspring numbers drop because of climate change? How many whales can be taken from a particular bay without damaging the local population. These are just the legitimate scientific questions. Then there are ethical ones that people bring up. It also turns out that nations that agreed to stop whaling for sustainability reasons do not agree to stop it for ethical ones. There’s the conflict.

  13. Salena

    I think all whaling should be banned. Humans have hunted them to the brink of extinction, and now it is our responsibility to correct the mistakes of our ancestors. The thing that concerns me is that although whaling was banned in 1986, three countries are known to still hunt whales. Their claims of killing in the name of scientific research have been shown to be blatant lies to continue whaling. Japan has been caught time after time buying IWC votes, violating IWC laws, and whaling in the Sanctuary. And what has been done to them as penalty for these violations? Nothing. When are penalties going to be implemented for violations of international law?

  14. Salena

    Japan, Iceland, and Norway did not follow the law for the past 24 years, and they face no penalty for this. If the law is changed, what is to keep them from continuing to violate it? The were not penalized before, and likely fear no repercussions from their actions. If DNA testing finds whale meat of endangered species in whaling countries being sold, what are the penalties? How are the IWC ‘overseers’ that would be stationed on whaling vessels and processing areas going to be chosen? Will the IWC hire more of its own people, or train people from these already corrupt countries to serve as IWC ‘officials’. What is to stop them from manipulating the slaughtered whale counts, as they have already proven themselves to be untrustworthy with their deceit and lies?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

      Salena – Enforcement and transparency is indeed one of the biggest problems. But many of the current whaling problems come from loopholes – because Japan,Norway and Iceland are not whaling outside of IWC ‘law’. Instead they are using loopholes. Japan’s loophole is something called Scientific whaling, in which it issues itself a permit to kill whales for research. The IWC must review the permits but OOOPS there is no language requiring the permits be APPROVED. So, Japan issues the permits, the IWC reviews them and disapproves, and the hunt goes on – perfectly legal.

      Norway is hunting ‘by objection’ – an IWC country can announce an objection to a major policy change such as the commercial moratorium, and then not follow it. This is within IWC ‘laws’ too.

      The problem is the loopholes.

  15. Mitch

    Along with Elsa, I’ve always wondered what research requires the killing of 400 whales per year. If there is a legitimate reason for it, then I should like to see the data from it all.

    I am not knowledgeable enough about the state of whales in general, and I don’t understand all of the political issues around their hunting, but it seems reasonable to me that if they are endangered then an outright ban would make sense. I think the argument from tradition is simply a fallacy used for political purposes here. Just because it’s a historic practice to hunt whales does not therefore justify it. People don’t get similar exemptions for other endangered species.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

      Hi Mitch – There is no good experiment I have ever seen proposed that demands 400 whale carcasses. Most physiology and genetics biology can be done with biopsies these days. You wouldn’t expect you lab tests from a Doctor’s visit to demand they remove your liver, and the same is true of whales. Most of the necessary science can be done without any deaths at all.

  16. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Stephen Palumbi

    All – thanks for the many comments and the world-wide discussion. The IWC Scientific Committee meeting is just about over, but the General Session is still to take place.I’m hoping the concerns voiced here continue to build and can help generate a better regulatory plan for whales – one without loopholes big enough for whales to swim through.

    best

    Steve Palumbi

  17. Gordon

    It is simply insane and tragic what is happening to our oceans most majestic and unknown of creatures- the pain inflicted on such whales and dolphins, while causing such disruption to the natural balance is almost too much to handle. I am scared of a world without whales and dolphins. What will I tell my beautiful brand new son- that killed them all? It is excellent to see international coverage on this issue and vital that media sources like PRI’s the World cover this issue. I was disappointed however with the Worlds coverage of movie that is currently being suppressed by the Japanese Government, The Cove, which exposes the massive slaughter of dolphins hidden in the fishing industry. The reporter on the story was a complete waste of space, and had no compassion what so ever.

  18. Shomam

    My understanding is that – in the 1980s – the Japanese delegation to the IWC used political muscle to leverage some of the smaller IWC member countries into voting for the 400 minke whale “scientific research” loophole. My first question: Is that correct? Second, if so, is the current paradigm one in which smaller countries can vote their conscience without fear of retribution from more powerful IWC countries? Along the same lines, does the IWC have the necessary teeth to regulate and carry out appropriate punishment for countries which flout regulations?

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