Only one commercially whaled population, the east Pacific grey whale, is thought to have recovered to its original abundance, but the closely related west Pacific grey whale population is the most endangered in the world. It hovers on the edge of extinction with just over 100 individual whales remaining.
A slow extinction
Recent DNA evidence shows that the impact of commercial whaling may be even worse than previously thought. Most estimates of historic whale population have been extrapolated from old whaling figures, but this method is often very inaccurate, argues marine biologist Steve Palumbi of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in California, USA.
In 2003 Palumbi and his colleagues used DNA samples to estimate that humpback whales could have numbered 1.5 million prior to the onset of commercial whaling in the 1800s. That number dwarfs the figure of 100,000 previously accepted by the IWC based on 19th century whaling records. In contrast, humpback whales currently number only 20,000.
Japanese delegates to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) constantly refer to a 1990 estimate of the Antarctic minke population of 760,000. But that figure was withdrawn by the IWC in 2000 because recent surveys found far fewer minkes than the older ones. The new estimates are about half of the old estimates in every area that has been resurveyed. The IWC’s scientists do not understand the reasons for this and so far have not been able to agree a new estimate.
Other threats to whales
Whaling is just one of many threats to whales. Human impacts have caused dramatic change to our oceans since the protection of many disappearing whale stocks was introduced. Known environmental threats to whales include global warming, pollution, overfishing, ozone depletion, noise such as sonar weaponry, and ship strikes. Industrial fishing threatens the whales’ food supply and also puts them at risk of entanglement in fishing gear.
Despite these accumulating threats, an increasing number of nations in the IWC are voting to reverse the ban on commercial whaling, which has been in effect since 1982. Japan’s Fisheries Agency has been recruiting new members to join the IWC and support the resumption of commercial whaling, despite the lack of any significant domestic or international demand for whale meat.
Currently, the Japanese government is killing minke whales in the Southern Ocean sanctuary for ‘scientific’ purposes and then selling it to a small pool of customers. This is despite the fact the scientific information they are collecting has been declared “needless” by the IWC itself, and could be found by non-lethal means. The Japanese government’s continued insistence on whaling is truly baffling.
Whale watching, on the other hand, when practiced responsibly, is a much more profitable and sustainable investment; 87 countries worldwide have whale watching enterprises, generating an estimated $1 billion in revenue every year. Canada banned commercial whaling in 1972 and since its inception in 1971 the whale watching industry has grown considerably. In Newfoundland, whale watching provides jobs and stimulates tourism, helping to fill the economic gap left by the collapse of the cod fishery.
The economic success of the industry has led to improved morale in many communities and enabled increased social awareness regarding whales, their protection and marine regulation.* The whale watching industry is also growing on the west coast, and the creation of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park was strongly influenced by the industry which has drawn attention to the public and economic interest of protecting marine life in the area.
Even with these positive developments, whale populations around the world are still incredibly vulnerable. Expectations for the recovery of whale populations have been based on the assumption that, except for commercial whaling, their place in the oceans is as secure as it was a hundred years ago. Sadly, this assumption is no longer valid. Ending commercial whaling is an absolutely essential step in making the oceans a safer place for whales.
* Canada is not an official member of the International Whaling Commission but retains observer status.