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Wednesday, 5 July, 2000, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
Whaling: Dr Ray Gambell answers your questions
The International Whaling Commission's Secretary, Dr Ray Gambell is in Australia this week for the IWC's annual conference. Dr Gambell, told BBC News Online recently he thought the 1986 moratorium banning commercial whaling should now be lifted.
The IWC's annual meeting in Adelaide kicked off amid controversy over a proposal by Australia to set up a South Pacific whale sanctuary.
Japan, backed by fellow whaling nation Norway, has attacked such a sanctuary, saying the plan had "no scientific justification" and was a political attempt to "further subvert" an international agreement on whaling. However conservationists say that another safe haven for whales would protect them from being hunted to extinction.
What do you think? Is it ever possible to kill a whale humanely? If whaling is allowed again, how can we be sure none of the very rare species like blue whales will be killed, with their meat being passed off as coming from a minke?
Aren't whales just too intelligent and special for us to hunt them? Why do we need to hunt them, anyway? Why doesn't the Commission just respect the wishes of the vast majority of its members and refuse ever again to allow hunting?
Mark Simmons, UK: Can you give me one clear non-economic reason for why the moratorium should be lifted and the hunting of whales allowed again?
Dr Ray Gambell: I think the main argument for the resumption of commercial whaling is that it is one way of utilising a natural resource of the oceans. The world is getting more and more people with more and more food requirements. The resources of the ocean are one way that the human population can be fed and whales are part of that total food base if you believe that they should be hunted at all.
Declan Chellar, England: Is there a humane way to hunt and kill an animal the size of a whale?
Dr Ray Gambell: The issue of killing animals is always a very emotive one and what we can hope to do is reduce the stress, the length of time that it takes to kill them to the absolute minimum. In a slaughterhouse you have the animal under reasonable control and can be pretty efficient in the process. The problem of hunting animals in the wild is that there is much more freedom for the hunter and the whale. What we are trying to do is reduce the time to death to the very minimum, to increase the efficiency of the hunt, so that the whale suffers the least amount. We've been able to introduce improved technology in terms of the weaponry that's used and the associated machinery that's employed, but it's a very difficult question and there's no easy answer other than instantaneous death. That's an aim which we're trying to achieve.
Elena Yeo, Singapore: It seems clear that the loophole allowing whales to be killed for scientific purposes is being used as an excuse by Japan to kill them for meat. So why isn't anything being done to stop them? Isn't it evident that the whales are heading straight to dinner tables and not to the labs?
Dr Ray Gambell: When the 1946 Convention under which we operate was signed, one of the major articles introduced by the USA was the provision for a government to be able to issue permits for research purposes. That has always been in the Convention and many governments over the years have caught quite large numbers of whales for research purposes but associated with that provision is whales are too valuable just to catch, measure and throw away. If you catch whales for research purposes, the requirement is that they are fully utilised and the products disposed of in a way that the government decides. In other words, the products have to be fully utilised and Japan is doing what every other government has done in previous years. It's using the whales for research, getting the research results which are sent to the Scientific Committee of the IWC and it's putting the products into the market place
Doug Graham, UK: Japan is permitted to kill whales for "scientific research." What is this research and why is it considered necessary?
Dr Ray Gambell: Japan has two major programmes for research. One is in the Antarctic - this is a very long-term programme over 16 or more years. They're taking a small number of whales, 3 or 4 hundred each year which over the full period of 16 years will provide what they think is statistically reliable numbers for working out a number of aspects of the life of the whale which can be used for management purposes. In the North Pacific, the stock structure is an especially important item because it's not at all clear how many different stocks of whales there are and so the research by Japan in that area is designed specifically to answer those questions.
Asbjorn Arnesen, Norway: Why shouldn't we be whaling in our own waters? We know that there's enough minkes in the ocean, so it's possible to take out a few without affecting the whale-population. After all, whaling means jobs for people who need them. It seems that the anti-whalers consider only the sympathetic look of the whale when considering whaling/ no whaling.
Dr Ray Gambell: Most of the whaling that the IWC is considering as a possible future commercial whaling operation would occur within coastal waters of the different countries and of course, there are strong feelings by governments that they have control over these waters. A government may wish to catch whales in its own waters but it needs to do so in conjunction with all the other governments who may be involved, in order that there can be proper oversight rather than one country just going its own way.
Daniel Simmonds, UK: I'm English and I work for a Japanese company. I visited Tokyo in March for business and discussed whaling with some Japanese colleagues. They said that foreigners do not respect the fact that whaling is part of Japan's culture. Bear bating used to be part of British "culture". However, British people do not practice bear bating today. Therefore, why does Japan think that its "culture" allows it to hunt whales close to extinction?
Dr Ray Gambell: The cultural differences which are represented amongst the governments in the IWC are one of the fascinating aspects of the whole organisation. People come to those meetings from different countries with different backgrounds and they've been brought up to expect different things. The point of negotiation is that we can reach some common understanding, which allows us all to move forward together.
Kevin Cheetham, England: What are the specific products of commercial whaling, and can they not be obtained from other sources/ by other methods?
Dr Ray Gambell: The primary product from whaling nowadays is meat for human consumption. There are the bits of the animal that you can't eat, the by-products, and they might be used for animal food or fertilisers but the main product nowadays is meat for people to eat. Now meat or protein can be obtained from other sources but undoubtedly there is a strong argument that in a world where there are more people needing food, we should try and use every available resource.
Matthew Minnett, Australia: If Japan for the last several years has continued to hunt and kill whales in the name of scientific research, in a clear breach of the IWC's prior decisions, how can we be sure that they will adhere to the species of the whales they are allowed to hunt and also the areas they are allowed to hunt in?
Dr Ray Gambell: I have to say at the outset that Japan is not doing anything illegal by catching the whales that it does and it is acting legally within the terms of the Convention that we operate. One of the things that we are working on at the present time is inspection and international observer programmes that will have oversight of any whaling which is under IWC control, to make sure that all regulations are followed covering areas such as size and species.
Derek Dunn, Manchester, UK: Can populations of whales be counted accurately and if not, how can sustainable quotas be calculated?
Dr Ray Gambell: One of the most important pieces of work that the Scientific Committee has been doing over recent years is developing methods to arrive at reliable assessment of whale stocks. We have had a variety of methods that have involved using the data from past catches and various techniques of that sort. We rely on direct sightings of the whales and send out special survey ships that carry out very precise inspections of the ocean, counting the whales as they go. We have also developed mathematical techniques for converting the number of whales seen into statistically reliable estimates of whales in that area.
J, USA: If the ban is to lifted, which I firmly disapprove of, can the protected zones (parks) be part of the agreement?
Dr Ray Gambell: If there is to be commercial whaling under international control, the idea is that it would basically be the coastal whaling that is presently going on. There is no thought that there will be a major expansion of commercial whaling into areas where it doesn't exist at the present time.
Melanie Hunt, England: Isn't the danger of resuming whaling, especially with the efficient modern techniques of killing, that whales will be killed much faster than they can reproduce? This would lead to an inevitable extinction which I'm sure no-one wants.
Dr Ray Gambell: There are two elements here. Firstly, the greater efficiency of hunting and killing is an advantage in terms of the humanness of the operation and that is something that we are definitely working towards. On the other hand, the IWC would set catch limits, which would control the number of whales that may be taken.
Angie Walters, UK: What are the implications to the ocean if whales were to become extinct?
Dr Ray Gambell: We are concerned about all the changes to the environment that we're beginning to see, such as climate change, ozone depletion, pollution. All of these things are having an impact on the oceans but it is impossible to predict at this time just what the effect will be on whales. By the same token, if whales, for whatever reason, were no longer in the ocean, their impact on all the other organisms with which they interact is so complicated that we can scarcely ask what will happen.
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