23 Jul 2009: Opinion

A Total Ban on Whaling?
New Studies May Hold the Key

As the International Whaling Commission debates whether to ban all whaling or to expand the limited hunts now underway, recent research has convinced some scientists that the world’s largest mammal should never be hunted again.

by fred pearce

The International Whaling Commission is lurching from crisis to stasis, unable to impose a complete ban on whaling, yet equally unwilling to allow a formal resumption. So the IWC meets every year and watches ever more whaling ships depart from Iceland, Japan, and Norway in contravention of the spirit — and sometimes the letter — of its 23-year-old whaling moratorium.

At one level, there is a crisis of rhetoric and perception. Japan’s annual hunt, sanctioned under a loophole allowing whaling in the interests of scientific research, is clearly bogus. But would-be whalers say that some proponents of a true moratorium — including former great whaling nations like the U.S. and Britain — are equally guilty of pretend science: They deny that whale populations have recovered enough during the moratorium for whaling to resume, when in fact they oppose resumption of whaling under any circumstances.

But behind this rancid politics, there is a real unanswered scientific question: Have some whale populations, such as Atlantic humpbacks, rebounded sufficiently to allow “sustainable” harvesting? Or have numbers been so decimated by centuries of past hunting that any resumption would be dangerous both for whale populations themselves, and for wider marine ecosystems?

One of the IWC’s main management objectives is to prohibit all catches where a particular population is at less than 54 percent of its original population level — sometimes referred to as the ocean’s “carrying capacity.” Whalers say many stocks have now risen above this benchmark. But have they? How many whales once swam the world’s seas?

At a recent meeting in Vancouver, scientists engaged in the decade-long Census of Marine Life agreed that, in the words of Irish delegate Poul Holm, “human pressure on marine life was much earlier, much larger and much more significant than previously thought.” That conclusion, they said, applied especially to marine mammals, including whales.

This is a bombshell for marine biologists. Their conventional view, held at the IWC and elsewhere, is that whale numbers were largely unchanged

Enlarge Image

Photo by Barbara LaCorte / National Marine Sanctuaries
prior to the arrival of industrial whaling, generally defined as the advent of explosive harpoons in the mid-19th century and — at the start of the 20th century — factory ships with ramps that could load large numbers of slaughtered whales for processing. But this, it increasingly appears, is nonsense. Seventeenth and 18th century whalers — in the heyday of chasing whales for oil to make candles, light street lamps, and lubricate machinery — wrecked most of the world’s whale stocks long before the arrival of industrial whaling.

It seems that old sailors’ chronicles of oceans filled to the horizon with whales were not hyperbolic fantasies. They were often literal truth.

Why do the census historians conclude this? First, because the sheer volume of historical evidence makes it ever harder to disbelieve. And second, because new population modeling, some of it based on DNA evidence, provides strong corroboration for the chroniclers.

The History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP) project, part of the Census of Marine Life, has so far collected records on 70,000 whale encounters that build up a picture of past super-abundance, says Andy Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire. Meanwhile, the genetic variation found in a handful of whale populations so far analyzed suggests that those that remain came from much larger populations than previous supposed. The analysis is based on the fact that, with succeeding generations, DNA is altered through subtle mutations: The larger the original population, the greater the genetic “drift” evident in the current population.

For instance, based on its own records, the IWC had concluded that the number of humpback whales swimming the North Atlantic before whalers began to reduce their numbers was around 20,000. With the current population estimated at 10,000, the humpback population could soon be considered sufficiently large to allow the resumption of whaling. But when Stanford University’s Stephen Palumbi and Joe Roman analyzed the population’s DNA in 2003, they concluded that the pre-exploitation figure was 12 times greater, with a population once numbering 240,000.

This suggested that the North Atlantic’s original humpback whale population was more than 20 times larger than the present population, and any claims that the population has recovered sufficiently to allow a resumption of whaling are well wide of the mark. Palumbi’s findings also suggest that the global population of humpbacks may once have been around 1.5 million, rather than the 100,000 estimated by the IWC.

Among the best documented stories of whale extermination is that of Arctic bowheads. England’s most famous whaler, William Scoresby, was one of hundreds of Dutch and English whaling captains who headed into the iceberg-infested waters around Greenland in the late 18th century to catch bowhead whales. They only had wooden vessels powered by wind and sail, and hand-held harpoons. But, guided by Scoresby — a brilliant sailor who invented the crow’s nest as a lookout for ice and whales — they sailed audaciously among the ice floes, where the whales congregated each spring, and brought back ever-larger hauls of blubber, to be boiled up on the dockside at ports like Scoresby’s home town of Whitby.

According to Robert Allen of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who modeled rates of harvesting and the reproductive rates of the species, eastern Arctic bowheads numbered almost a million animals when the Greenland hunt began. But within a few decades, the bowheads were virtually all gone. Whitby whalers gave up going north in the 1830s.

Today, almost 200 years on, the population of bowheads west of Greenland is still only around 1,200, and that east of Greenland, once the biggest whaling ground in the world, has simply disappeared altogether.

Whaling before the explosive harpoon and the factory ship may have been technically primitive, but it was a huge industry, with thousands of ships setting sail. The New England port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, was once known as the “the city that lit the world” because of its production of lamp oil from whale blubber.

One whale population after another was decimated, before the fleets moved on through the oceans, heading finally for southern waters. HMAP researchers estimate that in the 18th century, the waters off New Zealand were home to around 27,000 southern right whales. But by 1925, they had been reduced to 25 reproducing females.

“The systematic destruction of the great whales was a stupendous act of modern ecological folly...” Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego writes in a recent paper in Whales, Whaling and Ocean Ecosystems. “(T)he ecological consequences of the removal of so many behemoths must have been profound.”

He argues that the new findings on the past profusion of whales show our conventional view of marine food chains is upside down. Modern oceans are dominated by small and lowly creatures. They comprise most of the biomass, with larger species further up the food chain comprising ever less biomass.

But, says Jackson, this “trophic pyramid” may be an artifact of human hunting over the centuries rather than the natural state. In the natural state, he argues, the trophic pyramid was probably the other way around, with biomass dominated by megafauna. Millions upon millions of whales were eating out the oceans as fast as they could go.

Most marine biologists, Jackson says, continue to dismiss this idea out of hand, despite “the most careful and detailed historical descriptions [which are] are commonly dismissed as untestable anecdotes.” They do this, he says, because anecdotes of past huge whale numbers — though numerous — lack scientific rigor. And some argue that the DNA evidence relies on the assumption that distinct populations of whales did not interbreed in the past. Jackson calls this “unbridled anti-historical determinism that flies in the face of everything we have learned about… ecosystems.”

Jackson offers a startling new picture of life on Earth, a world in which giants ruled, and ruled in huge numbers. And if Jackson is right, then even the most “recovered” of today’s whale populations are only a tiny fraction of their former numbers.

That is one cause for thinking very hard before allowing any resumption of whaling. Another is that the world is only now learning the true scale of the abuse of science and wholesale flouting on IWC hunting quotas that has marked most of the six decades since the commissions was established in 1946.

We may have known how boats paid for by Unilever hunted the oceans with such vigor in the 1930s that an entire fleet was impounded by concerned Norwegians authorities in 1936 — one of the incidents that led to the commission’s formation. We may know how Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis made a whaling fortune in the 1950s and reportedly covered the bar stools in his favourite yacht with the downy skin from the scrotums of sperm whales.

But it is only in the past two years that the Marine Fisheries Review has published in English the memoirs of Russian whaling scientists, supposedly monitoring fleets in the 1950s and 1960s to ensure they complied with IWC rules. Former inspector Alfred Berzin described how the most notorious flouter of IWC law, Alexei Solyanik, killed 25,000 humpback whales off Antarctica in two seasons from 1959 to 1961, almost all outside the five-day legal hunting season.

At the start, said Berzin, “there were so many whales that the helicopter pilots joked they could make an emergency landing on the backs of humpbacks that were close to each other.” By the end, they were mostly gone, and Solyanik moved on to take other species like sperm and minke whales. Meanwhile, Australian biologists reported some catastrophic loss of the humpback population, but it was decades before the truth emerged that Russian whalers had decimated the population.

Such flagrant breaches of whaling law might not be possible today. The story suggests, however, that when greed is involved on the high seas, the chances of tightly controlling the size of catches is small. But the bigger story may be that whenever a harpoon enters a beleaguered whale, we are not harvesting a sustainable resource, we are messing with the remnant giants of deeply traumatized ecosystems about which we know staggeringly little.

POSTED ON 23 Jul 2009 IN Biodiversity Energy Forests Oceans Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Water North America 


And sharks? Tuna? Groupers? Surely they would all benefit from at least the same (minimal) level of protection as whales?
Posted by Fiona Wilmot on 23 Jul 2009

Given that their track record thus far stinks - of lies, exaggeration and macho posturing - the Japanese whaling companies (all underwritten and subsidized by the ever-compliant Japanese tax-payer) need to demonstrate that their "harvests" do NOT pose any threat to whale populations and marine ecosystems. Not the other way round, as currently, where those who advise caution after decades of outright plunder have to try to implement some sense in further exploitation.
Posted by Dominic Belfield on 24 Jul 2009

As the new film "The Cove" reveals, those cetaceans called dolphins are not covered by the IWC restrictions on whaling because Japan bought off the vote of many Caribbean nations to get dolphins exempt. The result is the bloody slaughter of dolphins by Japan in the town of Taiji; most are sold to commercial marine Disney World-like for entertainment and those not sold are slaughtered in a roundup that turns the Taiji cove deep blood red. The mercury contaminated flesh is being consumed all over Japan. The issue not being raised at the IWC or indeed elsewhere is whether intelligent, sentient marine mammals should be killed at all. They are not needed for food at al, any more than primates, tigers, rhinos, leopards, wolves, elephants or bears.

Why should any animals be killed, even if their populations are abundant and sustainable, except for subsistence? Killing animals not needed for food is nothing more than trophy hunting. It is time to expand the IWC concerns to address this profoundly important ethical issue.

Discussion of animal killing must consider more than sustainability.
Posted by Lorna Salzman on 14 Aug 2009

Arguments about what whale populations used to be might inform us as to what populations levels are desirable, but don`t really tell us what levels of harvesting are sustainable.

The best spur to protect whales would be to allocate property rights in them. which would give even harvesters incentives to ensure a growing population, and would enable all those concerned to cut deals as to when, where and how many whales are harvested. Similar incentives are being successfully introduced in fisheries, and are also protecting elephants.

The key to ending tragedies of the commons is ending the race to exploit and establishing property rights regimes.
Posted by TokyoTom on 30 Sep 2009

I hope finally people will get that whales are dieing a lot more then they were before and not that hunting isn't bad it just killing WAY too many.

Just help the whales because we were the smartest species on planet earth. So do something to help it and the earth will return the favor.

Posted by amy on 01 Nov 2009

As a hunter and fisher i can understand the deisre to do so and i can also understand the want to eat my kill or otherwise make it usefull, but only with moderation. There is absolutly NO excuse for the systematic rape of our oceans that is being commited. This is just ridiculous.

Posted by AvP on 23 May 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008). In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360 Pearce has written about the issues of overconsumption and overpopulation, and about the responsibility of developing nations in any global climate agreement.



As Chinese Luxury Market Grows,
An Upsurge in Tiger Killings in India

Poachers killed more tigers in the forests of India in 2016 than any year in the last 15. The spike is linked to demand for tiger parts in China, where the endangered animal’s bones and skins are regarded as exotic luxury items.

New Look at Rivers Reveals
The Toll of Human Activity

A recent outbreak of a deadly fish parasite on the Yellowstone River may have seemed unremarkable. But a new wave of research shows the episode was likely linked to the cumulative impact of human activities that essentially weakened the Yellowstone’s "immune system."

The Legacy of the Man Who
Changed Our View of Nature

The 19th-century German scientist Alexander von Humboldt popularized the concept that the natural world is interconnected. In a Yale e360 interview, biographer Andrea Wulf explains how Humboldt’s vision helped create modern environmentalism.

Aimed at Refugees, Fences Are
Threatening European Wildlife

A flood of migrants from the Middle East and Africa has prompted governments in the Balkans to erect hundreds of miles of border fences. Scientists say the expanding network of barriers poses a serious threat to wildlife, especially wide-ranging animals such as bears and wolves.

Are Trees Sentient Beings?
Certainly, Says German Forester

In his bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben argues that to save the world’s forests we must first recognize that trees are “wonderful beings” with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with — and heal — other trees.


MORE IN Opinion

Why U.S. Coal Industry and
Its Jobs Are Not Coming Back

by james van nostrand
President-elect Donald J. Trump has vowed to revive U.S. coal production and bring back thousands of jobs. But it’s basic economics and international concern about climate change that have crushed the American coal industry, not environmental regulations.

How the Attack on Science Is
Becoming a Global Contagion

by christian schwägerl
Assaults on the science behind climate change research and conservation policies are spreading from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. If this wave of “post-fact” thinking triumphs, the world will face a future dominated by pure ideology.

Why We Need a Carbon Tax,
And Why It Won’t Be Enough

by bill mckibben
Putting a price on carbon is an idea whose time has come, with even Big Oil signaling it may drop its long-standing opposition to a carbon tax. But the question is, has it come too late?

Floating Solar: A Win-Win for
Drought-Stricken Lakes in U.S.

by philip warburg
Floating solar panel arrays are increasingly being deployed in places as diverse as Brazil and Japan. One prime spot for these “floatovoltaic” projects could be the sunbaked U.S. Southwest, where they could produce clean energy and prevent evaporation in major man-made reservoirs.

Point/Counterpoint: Should
Green Critics Reassess Ethanol?

by timothy e. wirth and c. boyden gray
Former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth and former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray argue that environmental criticisms of corn ethanol are unwarranted and that the amount in gasoline should be increased. In rebuttal, economist C. Ford Runge counters that any revisionist view of ethanol ignores its negative impacts on the environment and the food supply.

The Case Against More Ethanol:
It's Simply Bad for Environment

by c. ford runge
The revisionist effort to increase the percentage of ethanol blended with U.S. gasoline continues to ignore the major environmental impacts of growing corn for fuel and how it inevitably leads to higher prices for this staple food crop. It remains a bad idea whose time has passed.

How Satellites and Big Data
Can Help to Save the Oceans

by douglas mccauley
With new marine protected areas and an emerging U.N. treaty, global ocean conservation efforts are on the verge of a major advance. But to enforce these ambitious initiatives, new satellite-based technologies and newly available online data must be harnessed.

Why Supreme Court’s Action
Creates Opportunity on Climate

by david victor
The U.S. Supreme Court order blocking the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan may have a silver lining: It provides an opportunity for the U.S. to show other nations it has a flexible, multi-faceted approach to cutting emissions.

With Court Action, Obama’s
Climate Policies in Jeopardy

by michael b. gerrard
The U.S. Supreme Court order blocking President Obama’s plan to cut emissions from coal-burning power plants is an unprecedented step and one of the most environmentally harmful decisions ever made by the nation’s highest court.

Beyond the Oregon Protests:
The Search for Common Ground

by nancy langston
Thrust into the spotlight by a group of anti-government militants as a place of confrontation, the Malheur wildlife refuge is actually a highly successful example of a new collaboration in the West between local residents and the federal government.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.