The madness of the whaling – hunting species after species to the verge of extinction – is the same model now being used in modern fishing today. Protecting the whales – not just from hunting but the many other daily threats they face - would be a signal that governments are serious about all ocean protection.
“Save the Whales” is the famous shout out that brought millions of people together and produced a worldwide ban on commercial whaling in 1986. Whales were and still are the most extreme example of the shocking exploitation and lack of protection of ocean life.
It was claimed that there used to be so many Right whales in Cape Cod Bay on the east coast of the USA, that locals could walk across their backs from one side of the bay to the other – a distance of 40km. It is estimated that there are 400 left in the area. The global movement that “saved the whales” is still needed today.
Activists have risked their lives in the Southern Ocean, putting themselves between the whales and the harpoons; campaigners in Japan have risked their freedom to expose the corruption of the whaling programme, people have marched, petitioned and demanded change; in 2013 one government took Japan to court over its continued whaling. Even cartoon characters want to save the whales – so why are they still at risk?
Not only do whales continue to be hunted by Japan, Norway and Iceland, they are also increasingly falling victim to ship strikes and being caught in nets as bycatch. Hundreds of thousands of whale and dolphins die each year in this way. Pollution, plastic trash in the ocean and overfishing are taking a heavy toll. The blubber in some whales caught in Arctic regions is so heavily contaminated with airborne chemicals and pesticides that it would class as toxic waste and numerous whales have been washed ashore having starved to death with plastic bags and sheeting stuck in their oesophagus or stomachs.
Whales are long-lived, from 70-150 years, and slow to reproduce. It makes them very vulnerable to population collapses. Blue whales – the biggest animal to have ever existed - have still not recovered from being hunted to the brink of extinction. Only one population, the East Pacific grey whale, is thought to have recovered to its pre-hunting levels, 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 one hundred remaining. The north Atlantic right whales are endangered.
And even these estimates may not be reliable. Previous estimates of population sizes have had to be dramatically reduced by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the organisation whose job it is to enforce the whaling ban and monitor populations.
Some measures are being taken to protect whales. The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary came as the result for great public demand for protected areas for the great whales. The Japanese whaling fleet continues to ignore the sanctuary status of the Southern Ocean, but a properly enforced ocean sanctuary could provide much needed protection for whales and countless other marine species.