There’s something that always make me wince whenever the media makes claims about what conservationists want. This was brought home with TV3 announcing that conservationists opposed the government’s moves on commercial whaling.

Actually conservationists are a very diverse lot. We don’t all jump on the anti-whaling band-wagon promoted by some governments and NGOs. This doesn’t mean we are pro-whaling. Let me be clear, I’d like to see Japan cease whaling (as a personal preference). The problem is much of the whaling debate isn’t about conservation, it’s about the principles some countries and NGOs adhere to.

Let’s consider the strategy we’ve been using to persuade whaling countries to stop. In 1982, the IWC agreed to a 5 year moratorium in a vote. The relevant text was

Not withstanding the other provisions of paragraph 10, catch limits for the killing for commercial purposes of whales from all stocks for the 1986 coastal and the 1985/86 pelagic seasons and thereafter shall be zero. This provision will be kept under review, based upon the best scientific advice, and by 1990 at the latest the Commission will undertake a comprehensive assessment of the effects of this decision on whale stocks and consider modification of this provision and the establishment of other catch limits.

The immediate consequences of this was Canada left the IWC. Japan, Russia, Norway and Peru took reservations against it on the basis that the IWC scientific committee had recommended against the moratorium

Canada still harvests hundreds of beluga, narwhal and bowhead annually. So the goal of preventing whaling in that IWC member has been an abject failure.

The principal whaling countries’ reservations meant that they could also continue whaling. (Japan shifted to scientific permits after it later withdrew its reservation). Other whaling countries like Norway and Iceland have continued with commercial permits. And it should be mentioned that many IWC members- even anti-whaling countries like the USA- still issue aboriginal harvest permits.

So has the strategy of political and protest action succeeded? Is the fact that Japan now subsidies its whaling industry as a matter of principle a success? Is the fact that Norway continues to take hundreds of whales commercially a success? Is the fact that Canada told the anti-whaling movement to get stuffed and does it anyway a success? Is the fact that even anti-whaling countries still whale a success?

After nearly thirty years, it’s become increasingly obvious that the strategy of being a hardline, anti-whaling country fails the most basic litmus test. It’s not working to end whaling- it is a bad strategy that is failing.

Indeed, it may be counter-productive if this prompts Japan to support their whalers with subsidies and Japanese consumers are prompted to consume more whale meat as an issue of nationalistic pride. There’s a very good reason why most countries gave up whaling. The economics don’t really work. Converting an economic issue to a matter of principle, doesn’t seem to help whales out a lot.

The second reason I don’t get enthusiastic about saving the whales is this diverts resources from where they are needed. The whale populations that are being harvested are often rated as being of least concern, or very low risk species buy the IUCN*. On the other hand several river dolphin species in Asia are recognised as critically endangered. Most of our native birds are more at risk of extinction than minkes. While various NGOs were pouring money and effort into saving the ‘least concern’ minke whale, the baiji quietly slipped into extinction. The great white shark is now thought to be rarer than the tiger, but there are no like campaigns to save it. The Indian gharial is even rarer and sliding backwards.

Nearly a third of all amphibian and reptile species are estimated to be in serious risk of extinction. We are at a point where thousands of species are at much greater risk than minke whales. Yet the choice is to take those resources we have and put them into "stopping whaling". Trying to save a small set of species not actually threatened by whaling, and giving up on so many more species that are in more urgent need, isn’t the optimal approach. And the fact that this strategy to stop whaling has not succeeded in 30 years feels like a colossal waste of money.


* IUCN risk rankings for commonly harvested species are:

1) The bowhead whale Balaena mysticetus is Least Concern, but with three subpopulations at elevated risk.

2) The common minke whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata is Least Concern.

3) The Antarctic minke whale B. bonaerensis is Data Deficient

4) The Gray Whale Eschrichtius robustus is Least Concern

5) The Narwhal Monodon monoceros is Near Threatened

6) The Beluga Delphinapterus leucas is Near Threatened

The IUCN threat categories are (ranked in risk)

Extinct (EX)

Extinct in the Wild (EW)

Critically Endangered (CR)

Endangered (EN)

Vulnerable (VU)

Near Threatened (NT)

Least Concern (LC)