Did we save the whales or what?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 2 2010 10:30 AM

Whatever Happened to the Whales?

Did we save them?

Also in Slate: Philip Hoare says we owe whales an apology, with a photo gallery of whales.

Whale. Click image to expand.
Have we saved the whales yet?

By now, you've caught us up on acid rain and the Amazon rainforest. Now I want a status report on the "Save the Whales" campaign. Did it work?

Well, it all depends on what you mean by save. If you mean, "Did we stop the wide-scale commercial slaughter of whales?," then yes, we did. (More on that in a minute.) If you mean, "Are the whales thriving in our oceans?," then that's another story.

Let's start with the first question.Whale hunts have existed for centuries, but starting in the mid-1800s, mechanized ships and weaponry allowed us to conquer leviathans with a new, ruthless efficiency. The slaughter intensified starting in 1904, when fresh stocks were discovered in the Southern Ocean. Over the next eight decades, more than  2 million whales were killed in the southern hemisphere alone (PDF).

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Even whalers realized that unfettered hunts would eventually drive them out of business. So in 1946, 15 countries—including the biggest players in the industry, such as Norway, Britain, Japan, and the USSR—established the International Whaling Commission. The body was charged with setting annual catch limits and overseeing research on whale populations. By the early 1980s, many additional non-whaling nations had joined the commission, in the hopes of pushing it to take a more protectionist stance. In 1982, conservationists who for years had been calling for the elimination of big whale hunts finally got their wish: The IWC voted to place a total freeze on commercial whaling, beginning four years later. Chalk one up for the "save the whales" campaign.

Of course, as any dedicated watcher of Whale Warsknows, that doesn't mean the hunts have stopped completely. We may not need whales for lamp oil or corset boning anymore, but some people still like to eat them. The international ban does allow for subsistence whaling by certain indigenous populations. Other interested parties may be able to skirt the rules in two ways: They can say they're killing whales in the name of science—which is how Japan does it—or they can just object to the international agreement and continue to hunt whales for profit, as Norway and Iceland do. (Whales killed via lethal research eventually wind up on dinner plates, thanks to an IWC requirement that "animals be utilised once the scientific data have been collected.") Either way, the three remaining whaling nations are free to set their own catch quotas. 

In the last five years, whalers from those countries have killed between 1,700 and 1,900 animals annually. That's much less than in the days before the moratorium took effect, when hunters were catching around 10,000 animals a year. But the kill levels have increased steadily since the late 1980s.

There may be some changes in the coming months. For one thing, Australia just announced that the Japanese have until November to stop hunting whales in the Southern Ocean, or else the Aussies are going to take them to international court. Then, last Monday, a small group of IWC members released the draft of a compromise proposal that would allow Japan, Norway, and Iceland to hunt whales commercially for a 10-year period. In return, those three countries would agree to adhere to a new set of catch limits, which would be "significantly" lower than current kill levels. The controversial proposal still has a lot of holes—like actual quota numbers—but a larger group of commission members are in Florida this week to discuss the draft. (Australia has already announced it will present a counterproposal there.) No real action can be taken until the IWC's annual meeting in June.

So whales, for the most part, have had a 24-year reprieve from hunters' harpoons. Have they recovered in the meantime?

Depending on how you do the taxonomy, hunters have traditionally gone after around 15 different species, collectively known as the great whales. Five of those species are described as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Among the rest, the sperm whale is considered vulnerable (the level below endangered), while five others—including that 1970s singing sensation, the humpback whale—are of least concern, meaning they're not going extinct anytime soon, even though they might not have returned to their pre-whaling levels. Most hunters nowadays pursue the common minke whale, which is also doing pretty well, all things considered. For a few other large whale species, there aren't enough data to make calls in either direction.

Things get more complicated, though, when you drill down and look at subpopulations. For example, humpback whales may doing fine as a general rule, but the ones that live in the Arabian Sea are considered endangered, as are those around Australia and the South Pacific. And then there are the humpbacks around South Georgia, which were mostly wiped out between 1904 and 1915 and have yet to come back.

What if, somehow, we could return the world's whales to some kind of pristine, pre-human state? If it could be proven that the hunts wouldn't push any populations into the danger zone, would environmentalists in countries besides Japan, Norway, and Iceland ever support sustainable, commercial whaling? The Lantern has her doubts. In America, at least, our belief in the essential dignity of these big, beautiful mammals seems just too ingrained to allow for their use as a food source. In the end, that may be the greatest legacy of the "Save the whales" movement.                           

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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