Commercial and political interests are abusing historical whaling rights of indigenous people, says Chris Butler-Stroud. In this week's Green Room, he says that ambiguities in international regulations are creating a "dangerous and uncertain" future for whales.
The lid on whaling's Pandora's box is not being just slightly opened by the whalers, but is being well and truly ripped open
When the authors of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling negotiated their first draft in 1946 and created the International Whaling Commission (IWC), they accepted that there were people, especially in the high Arctic, that relied on whales and other wildlife for their survival.
So, when the world community imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, the IWC continued its longstanding policy of allowing certain "indigenous" peoples to hunt otherwise protected whales for local use to satisfy their nutritional subsistence and cultural needs.
In doing so, they created a category of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW).
But little did they contemplate that in the opening decades of the 21st Century, it would be acceptable for ASW whalers to sell whole whales to corporate wholesalers, with processed meat being sold in supermarkets to anyone in Greenland, including tourists.
The concept of indigenous whalers taking enough whales to feed their family and friends appears to have been so self-evident to those early regulators that they made no attempt to define many key terms, including "aboriginal", "local use" or "subsistence".
Despite the expansion of ASW in recent decades, the IWC has still not defined those terms; nor has it ever implemented a management regime for these hunts.
Thanks to this lack of a clear regulatory framework, the establishment of ASW quotas and the operation of these hunts have become controversial issues for the IWC.
In the absence of any formal definition of "aboriginal", governments simply nominate those peoples whom they consider applicable and there is no requirement that they meet any definition of indigenous people agreed in international law based on cultural or anthropological parameters.
Following this process, the IWC has granted ASW quotas that allow the Chukotkan people of Russia and the Inuit of Alaska to take bowhead and gray whales.
Since 1983, it has also permitted "the taking by aborigines" of fin, minke and Bowhead whales in Greenland, but unlike the Alaskan Inuit, the Greenlandic Home Rule Government has exploited the ambiguities in the treaty about whose "needs" the whales are to meet.
Greenland regards the total number of "Greenlanders born in Greenland" (including non-native people) as qualifying and, is now seeking yet a further increase in its ASW quota - even though, to all appearances, the indigenous whalers and their communities have more than enough whale meat to meet their subsistence needs.
For the IWC, this poses a significant problem; its "accepted practice" has allowed whale meat from ASW hunts to be traded in order to pay hunting costs etc, but on the assumption that the trade is limited to within a small and localised group of peoples.
However, Greenland defines the whole territory of over 55,000 people as a local community.
As a result, all residents, not necessarily just the Inuit population, can consume the whale products and it is now also distributed through commercial outlets such as supermarkets.
It seems that "surplus" minke whale meat can even be sold abroad. This extensive commercialisation suggests that the whaling communities whose needs the IWC believed it was meeting have more than enough whales.
Demand and supply
Indeed, the Greenlanders kill some 4,000 small whales and dolphins annually and have not even taken all their available IWC quotas of fin and minke whales in the last 20 years.
But now, referring to its claimed "wider population", Greenland states that its existing quota does not meet its needs and it wants more whales.
Three years ago, it secured a quota of two bowhead whales and 25 more minke whales. Over the last two years, Greenland has demand an additional quota of 10 humpback whales a year.
Many EU countries, which historically have looked sympathetically at ASW requests, have expressed their concern at this insistence on even more whales for no demonstrated need, but they find themselves held hostage by Denmark and its ally, Sweden, who have been lobbying to give Greenland any quota that it specifies.
Disagreements on internal EU voting procedures required when the EU needs to act as a co-ordinated body could see Denmark and her allies trying to cause the EU to abstain rather than oppose the item when it comes up for decision this week.
The IWC Parties meeting in Florida this month will also consider proposals to legitimise the existing commercial whaling for Japan, Iceland and Norway.
The question must be asked: "What will stand in the way of Greenland or others arguing in the near future that they should be able to expand their whaling to become commercial whaling not unlike Norway and Japan?"
It seems the lid on whaling's Pandora's box is not being just slightly opened by the whalers, but is being well and truly ripped open.
This is creating a dangerous and uncertain future world for the whales and an IWC that is robbed of any real decision-making capability.
The coming year could see conservation take a back seat to back room deals and political fixes.
The only guarantee is that in 20 years' time we shall be wondering how we let our elected officials get away with it.
Chris Butler-Stroud is chief executive of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS)
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Chris Butler-Stroud? Are historic whaling rights being abused by commercial and political interests? Is international whaling policy up to the task of protecting the marine mammals? Is it time to legitimise whale hunting?
These greedy countries like Japan and Norway and Greenland - will keep on chipping away at any conservation law - greed is driving this push to kill more whales... It has to stop one and for all - ban all whaling...
Paul Rathbone, Newcastle upon Tyne
Hurry of commercial world is much faster than the natural growth of fishery and steady attitude of aboriginals. The penetration of commercial world in these remote areas is really alarming. Commercial world is governed by the growth and multiplying consumption of human population. We must support the view point of Mr.Chris butler-stroud and the rights of aboriginals must be protected. We are standing at a point where our small mistakes can put us in a very troublesome state and good decisions can enhance the marine environment and ultimately our planet. Its not only the future of whale, its not only aboriginal rights or commercial rights, it is about existence of the human beings. Every small preservation step is important for well being of natural system and human beings. The MPA is key aspect in marine life protection. Timings and catch of fisheries must be strictly regulated. Aboriginals and fisherman must be volunteered protection of whales and similar fishes. The marin!
e life is entirely dependent on different patterns of food choices, management of toxic waste, climate change efforts and most important is check on human population.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India
Yes I agree completely with Chris, I suspect that Japan is politically ( it's "buying" votes from these members and encourages the ongoing markets) behind the resurgence in whaling.
Udo Hennig, Townsville Australia
This is horrendous news I had no idea the IWC were so powerless. They really need to redefine the guidelines to prevent the loopholes and move quickly with the times, despite any political interests. The IWC must stop this blatant abuse of historic whaling rights before things go too far once again for the whales.
emma steward, Plymouth/ UK
It is so clear that if people keeping consume wildlife and menipulating to take more and more we are in the way to lose more spieces in our preciouce earth and if IWC going to let AWC to traiding on whales products so we hav to say good bay to the rest whales for ever !!!
salwa saleh ibrahim, muscat-oman
The abuse of these historical whaling rights should see them revoked entirely. With the modern development of what may have been historically whale dependant nations the needless slaughter of whales should be phased out. At leat quotas should be reduced to reflect development rather than increased. Let them eat chicken, pork and beef like the rest of us.
Fins 'n' Flukes, Ha'apai, Tonga.
as usual,,we continue to enslave,kill and disrupt the lives of animals and other life forms that share the planet with us. we continue our non-stop greed and use political situations as excuses, in years to come our singlemindedness might blight our childrens future on this place, we all call home.
JOHN GREGORY, new plymouth new zealand
With countries blatantly undermining the spirit of the IWC for their own commercial interests, I'm surprised they don't just outright leave the organization so that they don't need to pay lip service to it. What is the point of the IWC if it is toothless, and cannot even patch loopholes in its policies?
Chris C, Salt Lake City, USA
There is nothing wrong with "commercial whaling", providing that the catch quotas set are set in a conservative manner taking into account scientific uncertainties, and that the operations are appropriately monitored and regulated to ensure compliance with the quotas. In that way, I do not care whether the whaling is termed "aboriginal subsistence" or "commercial" for the political needs of those countries voting for and against at the IWC. What matters is that whaling is sustainable. This is the main reason why the IWC was created, not to be used as a tool to grant whaling rights to some and take them away from others, based on fuzzy conceptions of who should be able to catch and who should not.
A century of whaling may have released more than 100 million tonnes - or a large forest's worth - of carbon into the atmosphere. For sure, our oceans have been the only true net sink of anthropogenic carbon in 200 years and, as the lungs of our planet, must be healthy to continue to contribute this much needed mechanism. We cannot keep stripping them bare! Killing whales and up to 80% of other commercial fish stocks is destroying the health of our earth's most important asset!
Chris Long, Luton, UK
These whaling nations all claim to be preserving part of their "culture" but none of them are using traditional boats and weapons from the 15th century to kill the whales. This should be a requirement if indeed they want to "preserve their culture".
Tim Barlow, Plano Texas
Fully agree it is obvoius that the IWC have encouraged the ASW into kill more than the required need.
rory jackson, Co,Cork ireland
I think killing the whales in our oceans is abominable. And to use a loophole to allow whole whales to be sold and the meat eaten even by tourists is ridiculous. I get that people need to eat, but at what cost to the planet and ecosystem as a whole? I am tired of humans being greedy for money and presuming that these marvelous animals will always be around. And no, it is NOT time to legitimize whale hunting. It is time to protect marine mammals from ourselves!
Veronica Winter, Asheville, NC
This article is absolutely correct. It ceases to be "subsistence" whaling the moment the whales are used for monetary gain as opposed to meat for tribal food security. When whale meat is packaged and placed on supermarket shelves it is a commercial whaling business and prohibited by the IWC as well as CITES. EU countries should respond to violations of whaling regulations and bans with economic sanctions and boycotts.
Jaime Bolanos, Venezuela
Whales are not anything special, they are not the very highly intelligent BN Dolphins of TV, they are cows of the ocean. Whales should be treated as the sustainable marine resource that they are. The IWC is tasked with ensuring that whale populations remain healthy and that any whaing be sustainable. Without the IWC unregulated whaling could decimate the numbers again. Minke whales are very abundant and hardly endangered. Let them be hunted under IWC control. This is what conservation is all about.
JDamer, Clifton NJ
The Sea Life Centre network shares WDCS's anxieties about the shift to more commercial whaling and centres have already written to environment ministers across Europe urging them to block the request for a quota of 10 humpbacks. This is a slippery slope towards a resumption of commercial whaling, which would simply be disastrous.
Rob Hicks, Dorset
every loophole that could possibly be exploited is being exploited. what i don't totally understand, is the way the perception of whales has changed in the past 10 years from animals that needed saving to animals that need to be exploited. human exploitation / overuse of the earth's resources is going to be our downfall as a species. and good riddance to us when we leave.
skott daltonic, boston, MA / USA
Whale hunting shouldn't be allowed full stop. We've hunted the animals so much that most of them are now endangered, there wont be any whales in 20 years if we just continue to let them slaughter them like this. If the Inuits need them for food then that should be the only acception made. Japan has more than enough whale meat, so has greenland, it just seems like they're hunting them for fun now which wouldn't suprise me to be honest, as always seems to be with humans. Why would anyone want to kill such beautiful animals anyway? It's sick.
Katrina, London, England
stop supporting this anti-whaling hysteria and the grandstanding of the anti whaling lobby. there are enough whales from a number of species that can very well be harvested in a sustainable manner leaving more then enough whales for anyone to watch them including the fanatic bleeding heart activists. rhinos, tigers, sharks, elephants etc., etc. are for the dire lack of resources poached to extinction right under the noses of the same activists whilst millions are wasted to harass the taking of a few surplus whales
dereck conow, toronto/ontario
As a South Asian I am completely agreed with this nice article. His concept is all right. Due to overpopulation and over-hunting legally or illegally is the one of the important factors of disappearance of such type of marine animals in the river and oceans. In my childhood I have seen a large number of Shusuk (black dolphin) in our local river Gorai in the Kushtia district. Now their existence is rear. However,whales and dolphins are in an ecological dangers. The long-term prospects of these special animals in these water is endangered by increasing threats, both natural and man-made, and that includes incidental killing in gill-net fisheries, depletion of prey due to loss of fish and crustacean spawning habitat and toxic contamination from large, upstream human population centers. I would like say,an additional threat was declining freshwater flows from upstream extraction in the River Ganges and sea-level rise resulting from global climate change.So,it is time to legitimise the whale hunting.
Engr Salam, Kushtia,Bangladesh
My country whaled in fact at one time we were the third biggest Industry but times change and people grow up...My people Maori are the indigenous peopel of the land here in NZ.
We walked away from this butchery, and we revere the Whale as the NZ film Whale Rider has shown, yet we have what can only be termed as a "Paper" Maori in Mr Toyko Rose Inwood loudly proclaiming to all who will listen that we are a Whaling culture...we are not and what the IWC is doing can only be seen as what it is the "Final Solution" of a Species for profit...In the future our childrens children will look back at these people with disdain and contempt at what governments and the Whaling Industry is involved in the mass Indutrial destruction of a magestic Species.
Gbaes, New Zealand
To anyone who thinks that whales should be 'sustainably hunted' for commercial sale I ask you this: is it morally defensible to fire an exploding missile into a fully conscious animal? Because of the size of whales, the inability to restrain them during slaughter, and the unpredictable and difficult hunting environment, there is simply no reliably humane way to kill whales at sea. Recent data shows that whales can take over an hour to die from the horrific wounds caused by the explosion inside their bodies, most likely eventually bleeding to death. Whichever way you look at this it cannot be defended as a way to treat animals in the 21st century. As long as commercial whaling involves such crude slaughter and immense suffering then it shouldn't matter how sustainable it might be - whether there are one hundred whales or one million whales in the oceans, this cruelty simply should not be allowed.
Claire Bass, London, UK