Japan is fighting to legalise whaling, even though they already partake in many illegal whale hunts. They have decided to withdraw from the IWC (International Whaling Commission), so they can resume commercial whaling as of next year.
This presents a problem for the rest of the world, Japan claims its traditional consumption of whale meat is reason enough to allow them to once again hunt and kill whales legally.
Whaling affects everyone and all of our oceans; whales are found in every ocean around the world, making their survival our global responsibility. But why should we care?
If we set aside the anthropomorphism of the ‘poor whales!’ mentality, and look at the facts, there is a strong case against whaling. Whales are important species ecologically, both as predators and grazers; they transport nutrients during their migrations from the poles to the tropics.
Whale faeces provide a vital fertiliser input that supports the growth of micro and macro algae, research shows that the production and subsequent carbon storage removes significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Given the vastly depleted number of whales compared to pre commercial whaling days, their impact is not what it could have been.
However, most commercially hunted whale populations are starting to recover, or they were before the current overfishing and plastic litter situation became such an issue. If commercial whaling restarts, species that are starting to recover will once again be put under enormous pressure, just like our fishing stocks are now. In a time when removing carbon from the atmosphere is a priority, disturbing the oceans’ ecological balance further is clearly a terrible idea.
Predatory whales play a slightly different role to herbivorous whales; they feature at different trophic levels of the highly complex oceanic food web.
Herbivorous whales are more likely to complete long migrations, continuously searching for massive sources of plankton. They breed in tropical climes where their calves can build up fat reserves to deal with the temperate and polar waters where plankton are most prevalent. This migration moves nutrients around the oceans globally, supporting different habitats and bringing essential elements into the often nutrient poor tropics.
Predatory whales, by comparison, are more like to remain resident in relatively small areas where their prey are found. They can also take advantage of the seasonal migrations of a variety of prey species that may move through their territories.
Whales are the top predators of the oceans and, alongside a few large shark species, they are responsible for the top down controls that maintain the delicate balance the ecosystem needs to keep producing efficiently, without these predators keeping on top of the herbivore numbers, the balance would be lost and swing from extreme to extreme.
Some species predate other whales; orcas are the official top predator of the ocean, even taking out great white sharks. Whales also take nutrients right down into the deep oceans, their bodies sink to the ocean floor when they die, and provide much needed injections of food for the animals who survive down there. Organic matter that falls to the bottom of the ocean is called marine snow, and a whale carcass is a large food drop that can sustain scavengers for weeks.
We know very little about the animals found in the depths of the deep ocean, we are only just beginning to understand how the ecosystems down there work. The removal of the windfalls they rely on would most likely have significant impacts on the populations of already scarce and often long lived animals who live down there.
Let’s set aside the environmental concerns for a moment, and focus on the gastronomic side of the issue. The ocean is highly polluted, and pollutants accumulate in the fatty tissues of top predators and planktivores alike. Based purely on the sheer amount of food consumed by large animals like whales, it’s unsurprising that most of the carcasses washing up on our shores recently are showing dangerous levels of a variety of pollutants and toxins.
An orca named Lulu, who washed up on Scottish shores in 2016, had the highest recorded levels of PCB’s found in a cetacean, over 20 times higher than those that would be considered tolerable. She never bore a calf; it is believed the pollution made her infertile. PCB’s were banned in the 1970’s, yet they are still exceedingly persistent in the aquatic environment.
There are many other toxins to consider, from heavy metals to nuclear pollution from dumped nuclear waste. All in all, cetaceans do not make for healthy eating, as mammals they store persistent pollutants in their blubber, and so they are prone to bioaccumulate non biodegradable chemicals.
In conclusion, whaling benefits no one, save for the few who make some small profit before they run out of whales to kill. We have no need these days of most of the products traditional whaling would have been seeking, they’ve been replaced with far more sustainable alternatives, or their need eradicated entirely such as when blubber was processed to power oil lamps.
Spermaceti oil was used in cosmetics due to its odourless nature when cooled, we now have plant based substitutes that work as well and are far easier to access. The call to resume commercial whaling is not based in science or genuine need; it is purely profit led, and an extremely short sighted venture. With many populations of whales still vulnerable from the losses suffered when commercial whaling was at its peak, it makes no sense to put significant pressure on populations that are only now beginning to recover.