– How whaling is antithetical to climate change control, but why Japan’s decision to leave the International Whaling Commission might be cause for celebration –

Written by Lauren Wills

A whale tied to the side of the Japanese whale research vessel Yushin Maru No. 2 taken February 15, 2013. Photo courtesy Sea Shepherd Conservation SocietyWHALING, JAPAN, AND THE ERADICATION OF THE OCEAN’S GENTLEST ‘ECOSYSTEM ENGINEERS’ 

With the end of 2018 came the news that Japan – a nation notorious for whaling and responsible for slaughtering up to 1,200 whales each year – is withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

For many, the news was met with confusion: was the announcement cause for celebration or condemnation?

Disassociating itself from the conservation commission, Japan also affirmed plans to recommence commercial whaling – a practice banned by the IWC in 1986 after some species were hunted to near extinction. Since then, the IWC implemented a quasi-permanent ban on hunting enabling stocks to recover, though Japan argued for so-called “sustainable” whaling and gained a “scientific permit” to hunt. In September, Tokyo urged the IWC to permit commercial catch quotas, but the proposal was rejected. Now, withdrawing from the agreement, Japan will freely hunt whale species in its own territories and economic zones.

Politicians and conservation groups chimed in on the issue. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Environment Minister Melissa Price said they were “extremely disappointed.” Greenpeace Japan urged the government to reconsider, with the executive director Sam Annesley cautioning: “It’s clear that the government is trying to sneak in this announcement at the end of year, away from the spotlight… but the world sees this for what it is. The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures.”

Yet, Japan’s move also signifies the end of whaling in Antarctic waters and the southern hemisphere – something global marine conservation group Sea Shepherd dubs a victory.

Via social media, the group lauded, “Since 2002, Sea Shepherd has lead [sic] countless… operations against illegal Japanese whaling, saving over 6000 whales in the process.” (The group documented this in the award-winning Animal Planet series Whale Wars.)It went on to affirm that Japan’s announcement means “Antarctic whaling is over!” 

The society’s founder, Captain Paul Watson, elaborated, “We are delighted to see the end of whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary [an internationally established area where commercial whaling is prohibited] …we will soon have a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary and we look forward to continuing to oppose the three remaining pirate whaling nations of Norway, Japan and Iceland. Whaling as a ‘legal’ industry has ended. All that remains is to mop up the pirates.”

And Sea Shepherd is right to feel hopeful. Whaling isin decline, and attitudes towards the oceanic mammals are rapidly changing – for the better.

The history of whaling can be traced back to 3,000 B.C, though it really soared in the 17th century. By the 18th and 19th centuries, whale hunting was a competitive and lucrative market, animals slaughtered primarily for their meat, oil, and other body parts which could be turned into household goods such as candle wax, margarine, and bone-based jewellery, toys, and tools. The introduction of ‘factory’ ships in the 20th century improved the ‘efficiency’ of the kill, driving species to near obliteration. The numbers of blue whales dropped by 95 per cent.

Today, commercial whaling continues in countries which claim a cultural pull and historical attachment to the practice. In Japan, for example, coastal communities have partaken in the practice for centuries – though Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper claims that whale meat now comprises only 0.1 per cent of all meat sold in the nation.

Even as whaling declines, though, it remains relevant to question whether tradition is justification for whale hunting.

Whales are slaughtered by a variety of means, one such method being grenade harpoons. The harpoons are shot into the animals before the bomb explodes inside the fully sentient creature, a slow and macabre death. According to UK national treasure and environmentalist Sir David Attenborough, “there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea.”

Beyond the ethics of the kill, whaling is environmentally indefensible. 

Like old trees, whales act as carbon sinks, storing thousands of tonnes of carbon throughout their lives. Up to 18,000 pounds of carbon can be stored by each animal. When they die of natural causes, whales’ bodies sink to the ocean bed, ensuring the carbon will never be released into the atmosphere. A whale’s life cycle – free from human intervention – mitigates the accumulation of greenhouse gases in both the direct marine system and Earth’s atmosphere.

Yet when whales are hunted by humans, removed from the ocean and sliced open, this carbon is released. Scientists estimate that 110 million tonnes of carbon have been emitted through the past hundred years of whale slaughter. According to research scientist Andrew Pershing, “a century of whaling equates to the burning of more than 70 million acres of forest or 28,000 SUVs driving for 100 years.” 

Speaking to the Guardian, marine biogeochemist Lavenia Ratnarajah further described whales as “ecosystem engineers,” noting how they regulate the climate by influencing ‘phytoplankton blooms.’ Phytoplankton, microscopic marine algae, are the prime biological remover of carbon dioxide and, along with other marine botanicals, produce roughly 50 per cent of the oxygen humans breathe. They are also the foundation of the Antarctic food chain. 

Whales uphold crucial phytoplankton populations in two ways. Firstly, currents caused by whale movement dissipate the nutrients essential to phytoplankton growth. The second method is through excrement. In “the most detailed whale poo expedition ever” scientists are this month travelling to the Antarctic to explore the importance of whale faeces in Southern Ocean ecosystems. The researchers believe that the faeces, rich in iron, serve as an ocean fertilizer, stimulating the growth of marine bacteria and phytoplankton. The faeces of sperm whales alone may be responsible for removing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by nurturing phytoplankton. Some scientists project that restoring whale populations is as effective in regulating the climate as reforestation.

Ratnarajah concludes, “Conservation campaigns are usually focused on [whales’] beauty, but…[i]f we can show how much these animals contribute to the functions of the oceans, then it will be easier to save them.”

These gentle giants are the beating heart – or rather, lungs – of the ocean, and by extension can maintain a healthy and biodiverse planet. Japan, along with other whaling nations, are yet to appreciate this. But, for now, we should feel free to celebrate the end of legal whaling in the Antarctic and have faith that conservation groups will continue to ‘mop up the pirates.’

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