They sing, they dance, and they like to make love. Tireless travellers, they may cover tens of thousands of miles of the world’s oceans in a year, searching for food or safe places to bear their young. Some are much smarter than others and they can be, by turns, gentle or violent. Some family ties can be profound—among killer whales, mothers and offspring often remain together throughout their lives and that can be a long time: females can live to be 80 years old and males, 60. Because of their enormous size, whales have had little to fear from most other creatures. However, remorselessly hunted for centuries by man, many species were pushed to the brink of extinction. Finally, in 1986, seafaring nations agreed to a worldwide prohibition on commercial whaling. Since then, a few varieties have become more populous in some parts of the world—reviving demands by several countries that the annual hunt be resumed. Last month, whales gained a reprieve when the nations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted 18 to 6 to extend the ban for another year.
But the decision was reached amid acrimony. Delegates of pro-whaling nations—notably Japan and Norway—left the meeting in Kyoto, Japan, on May 14 vowing to continue their fight. Two weeks later, when Norwegian whaling vessels prepared to defy the ban and weigh anchor for the Arctic Ocean, six Greenpeace activists chained themselves to harpoons on two of the Norwegian vessels for two days. The ships eventually set sail without further incident but the activists’ gesture focused world attention on the fierce debate over whether whales should be hunted at all, regardless of their numbers. Pro-whaling na-
tions insist that such species as the minke, the most numerous of the medium-sized whales, could be subject to a limited hunt without risk of extinction. But anti-whaling nations argue that all whales should be protected partly because whaling is difficult to control. And conservationists say that even without a hunt, the world’s largest mammals still face an uphill battle against pollution and depletion of food stocks. Said James Darling, a Tofino-based biologist and executive director of the independent West Coast Whale Research Foundation: “We are really talking ethics here, not whether a sustainable harvest is possible.”
As late as the mid-1960s, commercial whaling was widespread, even though quotas had already been established for a few species. In 1964, a worldwide hunt used highly efficient factory ships and harpoon cannon to kill 63,001 whales. By 1985, quotas set by the IWC gradually reduced the kill to 6,600. But despite the ban that came into effect the following year, many kinds of whales have been slow to recover in numbers. Although population figures remain highly speculative, it is estimated there are now no more than 3,000 “right” whales, compared to about 100,000 to 200,000 before hunting began in the 11th centuiy. Weighing as much as 50 tons and up to 60 feet long, they were called right whales because they were the right ones to pursue—slow, easy to catch, and they floated when killed, making retrieval relatively easy. Prized for their oil, which was used for soap and fuel, and their baleen, which became umbrellas and corsets, the right whale population was dramatically reduced by the 19th century and it has never recovered.
Several other species are also in trouble. Blue whales, the world’s largest at up to 100 feet long and 150 tons in weight, number between 700 and 1,500, compared with pre-hunting levels of about 200,000. Some scientists think that such low numbers, scattered over vast distances, may make it difficult for blue whales to find one another at mating time. By some of the most optimistic estimates, there are about 8,000 surviving bowhead whales, named for their distinctive curved skull, and about 12,000 humpbacks, 125,000 of which once roamed the oceans.
Since the current ban came into effect, Japan, Iceland and Norway have led a campaign to allow some whaling. Japan and Norway have continued to use an exemption in the IWC rules that permits killing whales for scientific purposes. In what critics claim is a thinly disguised commercial hunt, Japan kills about 300 minke whales an-
nually for research. Most of that meat ends up in restaurants—whale meat is a delicacy in Japan— and Tokyo argues that whaling is an integral part of Japan’s culture.
The United States opposes the hunt because of uncertainty over whale populations and fears that a reopened hunt may be difficult to police. It has barred Japan from all fishing in its waters and warned Iceland and Norway that it may impose economic sanctions if they persist in their at-
tempts to hunt whales commercially. Between 1986 and 1991, Iceland killed about 100 whales a year under the IWC’s research exemption. A militant Vancouver-based animal-protection group, the Sea Shepherd Society, sank two of the island nation’s whaling vessels in 1986, by removing bolts from steel hull plates. In 1991, Iceland resigned from the IWC, insisting that some whales, such as the fin, which numbers about 150,000, can be hunted without threatening their survival.
However, Norway has borne the brunt of international condemnation this year. In 1992, the Norwegian government announced it would take 380 minke whales over three years for research, from a population in the northeast Atlantic estimated at between 67,900 and 86,700.
But, under intense pressure from northern communities heavily dependent on whaling, the government of Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, acclaimed elsewhere for its leadership on environmental issues, announced that Norway would kill 160 minke whales this year in its first commercial hunt since 1987. Most of the profit from the hunt is made from the sale of whale meat. That hunt, however, may be short-lived. In addition to Greenpeace, members of the European Community have been strongly critical and that has led to unease within Norway itself.
Canada has not played a big role in the whaling debate. Although Canada’s waters are a haven for thousands of endangered whales, such as the right and humpback, it is not a member of the IWC. After voting against a whaling ban in 1981, Canada withdrew from the commission, ostensibly because it had abandoned commercial whaling in 1972. Said Bernard Applebaum, director general of the International Directorate at the department of fisheries and oceans: “The ban was inconsistent with measures that had just been adopted by the IWC that were designed to allow harvests of stocks at safe levels.” However, most of the IWC’s 36 member countries are not whaling nations either, and critics suggest that Canada withdrew for other reasons as well. Anne Doncaster, of Mississauga, director of the Canadian arm of the Massachusetts-based International Wildlife Coalition, said Canada wanted to avoid “international flak for supporting whaling nations so it decided not to vote at all.” Doncaster also believes Canada is concerned about indications that the IWC, which now only monitors large whales, will broaden its mandate to cover smaller cetaceans such as beluga whales and narwhals. According to Doncaster, Canada “withdrew from the IWC so that we could do what we wanted with our marine mammals.”
The relatively young movement to save the world’s whales grew out of popular fascination with the creatures that began more than 25 years ago when scientists began to understand more about whale behavior. Until then, the huge mammals had more often been thought of as menacing protagonists in classic sea stories—like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick — than as animals that share a significant number of characteristics with man. Studies in the 1960s revealed that some whales use whistles, clicks and groans to send mating calls and other messages over distances of hundreds of miles under water.
Biologist Graeme Ellis of the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C., says a population of 190 killer whales living off the northern end of Vancouver Island is growing at an optimum rate—the females calve on average every three years. The whales, which grow to about 31 feet long and weigh about 6 tons, are known for their distinctive black and white markings, and travel in pods ranging in size from ten to 20 individuals. “A mother and her children will stay together for life,” Ellis says. “It is not unusual for a 35-year-old male to still be with his mom. The bonds are so tight that in 20 years of observation, we have never seen an animal leave a pod.”
Biologist Jim Darling has been studying gray and humpback whales since the mid1970s. Although grays have made an encouraging comeback along the Pacific coast, with most of the worldwide population of about 21,000 living in the north Pacific, Darling says they have been slower to re-establish themselves for reasons that are unclear. Humpbacks are the only whale whose vocalizations are known as a “song.” According to Darling, humpback voices are probably a secondary sex characteristic crucial to establishing dominance among males. Darling has also learned that humpbacks will frequently engage in violent displays of tail thrashing when competing for a female. But as for intelligence, he discounted the widespread notion that whales may be as smart as humans. The scientific consensus is that only killer whales and dolphins are highly intelligent. “The large whales are incredible animals but their intelligence is like that of a large land mammal,” said Darling. “They are not talking philosophy under the waves.”
Yet, the recovery of the humpback popula-
tion has a downside for some Canadian East Coast fishing communities. The fish-eating humpback is drawn to the same waters long fished by Newfoundlanders. Encounters between whales and expensive fishing nets often result in ruined nets and dead animals. Jon Lien, a professor of animal behavior at Memorial University in St. John’s, has been trying for the past 15 years to find ways to save whales from the nets without angering fishermen. “When a whale is caught in a net, it does what 40 tons of wild animal normally does—it panics, and goes nuts,” Lien said. About half of them eventually died of suffocation, usually dragging nets to the bottom with them.
Lien has developed a hands-on method of calming entangled whales. Working from a rubber boat, he helps fishermen learn how to get the whale used to the presence of human beings by occasionally touching it, allowing it to become familiar with their equipment, and trying to figure out how it will respond. Once the whale’s movements become predictable, it can then be manoeuvred from side to side, so that it eventually frees itself. He has also developed alarms, which warn an approaching animal that nets lie ahead.
But while his efforts have reduced the mortality rate to about 10 per cent of all whales caught in nets near Newfoundland, Lien warns there is much more to saving whales than trying to prevent individual deaths. “We are asking whales to grow back in habitats that have changed because of overfishing, pollution and marine traffic,” Lien says. “It is not just a matter of stopping whaling and expecting tons of whales to be around. What we have to manage is our impact on the oceans. If we don’t, the ocean will end up like the land and whales will go the way of the buffalo.” In a civilization that often attaches a higher value to consumption than to conservation, Lien’s prophecy may well come to pass.
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