In late December 1904, Norwegian whalers shot a humpback whale off the island of South Georgia. It was the first whale to be killed by a whaling ship in the Southern Ocean; it would not be the last.
Every austral summer since then, whalers have been at work in the waters around the Antarctic. Every year for 110 years ... until now.
Last week the Fisheries Agency of Japan announced that it would not be sending its fleet to the Antarctic for the 2014-15 season, following Monday’s finding by the International Court of Justice that, despite Japan’s claims to the contrary, its Antarctic whaling was “not for purposes of scientific research,” and should be halted with “immediate effect.”
For long-time advocates of an end to commercial whaling — including this correspondent — the FAJ announcement prompted stunned celebration of a development that had been a long time coming. My friend Brian Fitzgerald wrote a particularly poignant blog in the form of a letter to the late David McTaggart, the former chair of Greenpeace International, who was at the forefront of so much of that organization’s whaling and Antarctic work, including efforts that culminated in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopting a commercial whaling moratorium in 1982, and a Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in 1994.
Of course, the fact that the moratorium and the sanctuary have been in place for 32 and 20 years respectively, and yet commercial whaling continues in various guises anyway, underlines the reality that whaling is the Walking Dead of environmental issues.
The reason that Japan has insisted that its Antarctic whaling since 1986 has been for “scientific research” is so it could use a provision of the IWC’s rulebook (which permits member nations to “kill, take or treat” whales for scientific purposes) to circumvent the moratorium; even as the whaling fleet returned to port over the weekend, there remained lingering concern that its absence from the Antarctic might be temporary and that it could return in the 2015-16 season after a revision of its "scientific" program (an option that the court provided).
If there is cause for optimism, it is that Japan’s distant-water whaling is an expensive business, requiring reported annual subsidies of 4 million yen, while consumption of whale meat in the country is just 2 percent of its peak. That is why The Japan Times, in an editorial, urged using the court’s decision as an opportunity for Tokyo to completely rethink its approach to whaling (an editorial that was, incidentally, entirely more reasoned than the Los Angeles Times’ clueless entreaty for the IWC to, among other things, “help end the big whale hunts by amending its rules to allow more whaling.”)
With the shock waves of last week’s events still reverberating, it seems unlikely that any medium-or-long-term clarity will emerge for a while yet, although the early insider money is on Japan for now choosing to focus its efforts on its North Pacific whaling — which was not covered by the ICJ ruling. Their whaling in the North Pacific is also being conducted under the guise of science, and last year actually resulted in the deaths of more whales than did the Antarctic program.
Meanwhile Iceland and Norway are also still flouting the moratorium — while thousands of cetaceans are being killed in hunts that are not governed by the IWC, or caught in fishing gear, and still others are being struck by ships, possibly killed as a result of Navy sonar, or finding it increasingly hard to make themselves heard as their vocalizations are drowned out by noise pollution.
So, whatever the net result ends up being, this last week was not the week that “saved the whales.” It wasn’t even the week that saw the end of whaling, although perhaps it was the beginning of the end (or at least the latest beginning).
But it may, just may, have been the end of whaling in the Antarctic, where humans visited the greatest carnage of all on the world’s whales, where 45,000 whales were once killed in a single year, where populations of blue whales are perhaps 2 percent of what they once where, where hunting of those blue whales only stopped after a year in which the world’s whaling fleets could find and kill only 20 of them.
For the first time in 110 years, not one of the whales that swim to the Southern Ocean will be at risk of a ship full of humans steaming up behind it and firing a harpoon into its head. That might not mean that the whales are saved, but it’s something worth celebrating.
Photo of minke whale on the deck of the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru, courtesy of Kieran Mulvaney