Whaling Myths

The commercial whaling industry uses half-truths and outright lies to defend itself. Here, we debunk some of their myths and set the record straight.

Documentation on Whaling in Iceland

© Greenpeace

Myth 1: Whales “eat too many fish” and must be culled.

Pro-whaling forces repeatedly insist that whales eat “too many” fish and need to be controlled as part of a broader marine ecosystem management approach. The statement is unscientific and has no basis in fact.

  • Many whales do not eat fish at all; indeed, most of the world’s baleen whales live in the Southern Hemisphere, where they primarily eat krill.
  • According to whalers’ own records, they cut open 5,940 whales between 1987 and 2005. In three out of four whaling zones, not a single fish was found in the stomachs. In the fourth zone, 0.2 percent of the stomach contents were fish. That’s a total of 125 kilograms of fish found in 18 years of “research.”
  • The sizes of many whale populations today are at a small fraction of their levels in pre-whaling times when commercial fish populations were considerably larger and much healthier than they are today. This means that commercial fish stocks and many whale populations have both declined precipitously.
  • The primary predators of fish are not whales, but other fish. The removal of top predators (such as cetaceans) can cause major ecosystem disturbances, with negative consequences for fisheries.

Human overfishing is the cause of the precipitous decline of commercial fish stocks worldwide.

Myth 2: Whale populations are numerous and increasing.

Whalers repeatedly argue that whale populations are numerous and increasing, and that their catches will not deplete those populations.

However, these arguments are based on some doubtful science. For example:

  •  Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) claims that populations of humpback and fin whales are growing by 14 to 16 percent. The International Whaling Commissions’s Scientific Committee states this is biologically impossible.
  • The Japanese government continues to cite an outdated estimate of 760,000 minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • The 760,000 figure was an estimate based on surveys completed in 1987-88, which the IWC Scientific Committee once acknowledged was the best available at the time. Since then, more recent surveys have suggested a significantly lower abundance of minke whales. Indeed, the Scientific Committee agreed in 2000 that the 760,000 number was no longer appropriate. There has been no agreed population estimate since and the population may be declining.

Myth 3: Commercial whaling is essential for traditional, cultural or nutritional reasons.

Japan’s whaling tradition dates back only a few centuries (roughly as long as the whaling traditions of Britain and the Netherlands) and is centered around a few coastal communities. Japan’s Antarctic whaling did not begin until the 1930s, and was expanded massively following World War II at the instigation of the U.S. as a means of feeding a starving population. Demand for whale meat is low in Iceland, Japan and Norway.

  • In 2006, the Norwegian government cut short the whaling season halfway through because the market for whale meat was already saturated.
  • The Icelandic government has made it clear that commercial whaling will only continue if an export market can be found.
  • Meanwhile, Japan has more than 4,000 tons of whale meat from its “scientific” whaling program in cold storage — uneaten, unsold and unwanted.
  • Few Japanese people view whales as a vital food source and even fewer actually eat them. According to an opinion poll conducted in Japan in 2006, 69 percent of Japanese people do not support whaling on the high seas and 95 percent never or rarely eat whale meat. Without a government subsidy to the whaling industry, Japan’s commercial whaling activity in the Southern Ocean would likely end immediately.

Myth 4: Anti-whaling countries have repeatedly blocked attempts to adopt the Revised Management Procedure.

One of the most frequent claims by the Fisheries Agency of Japan — as well as by Norwegian and Icelandic whaling interests — is that non-whaling nations are obstructionist, moving goal posts and doing all they can to block “rational” management of whale populations.

Specifically, they repeatedly insist that NGOs and the conservation-minded governments have stubbornly blocked the adoption of the Revised Management Procedure and Revised Management Scheme (RMP/RMS). The truth is rather different.

  • The IWC adopted the RMP in principle back in 1994. The biggest obstacle to the implementation of the full Revised Management Scheme (RMS) has been the refusal by Japan and other whaling nations to accept the need for monitoring and oversight of their whaling operations, from inspectors and observers on board whaling vessels to oversight of DNA databases and trade monitoring schemes. Japan and the pro-whaling nations refuse to accept control and administrative measures that are considered routine in modern fisheries treaties.
  • At the 54th IWC meeting, in Shimonoseki, Japan, Sweden introduced a proposal to adopt the RMS, which would have moved the IWC toward whaling under very strict conditions. Japan and its paid allies voted against it. Had they voted for it, it would have passed and the RMS would have been adopted five years ago.
  • Norway, having found that the RMP does not provide high enough quotas for its liking, is now working to revise it. This revision is based on running simulations for 300 years and allowing higher catches in the first 100 years, which are made up for by reduced catches over the next 200 years.

Myth 5: Whalers have learned from the mistakes of the past.

Historically, large-scale management failures, over-hunting and the mistake of treating marine mammals as if they were fish lead to the massive depletion of each whale species that was commercially targeted.

Those who argue for a return to commercial whaling say that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated and that the lessons have been learned.

Recent evidence suggests this is not the case:

  • As outlined above, pro-whalers use disputed population figures and manipulate or ignore the RMP in order to produce the highest possible hunting quotas.
  • In August 2006, investigations revealed that Japan had been illegally overfishing for Southern Bluefin tuna over a period of 20 years, taking 178,000 tons of tuna above what was allowed. Southern Bluefin tuna is now considered critically endangered by the IUCN.
  • The Japanese government is using overseas development aid money to buy votes at the IWC — in an attempt to compromise the regulatory body overseeing the fate of the whales.

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