I first tasted whale almost 10 years ago in the Faroe Islands. An unhappy hunter was getting drunk on one side of me, telling me about his urge to kill the largest creatures in the sea, and a secondary school headmaster who ran the islands’ whaling association was kicking his shins under the table trying to keep him quiet. Even as the whaler slumped senseless in his cups, the plate of steaming minke arrived.
Every mouthful was a political and cultural booby trap, every forkful an invitation to offend a nation of blubber lovers. But I was genuinely divided. The fatty blubber was, honestly, rather tasty; but the black flesh was tough and rank as old puffin or wildebeest. “Ah,” said the headmaster, quite enjoying my mixed reaction. “When we eat whale, we don’t eat it to enjoy. We eat it to remind us who we are.” Ha ha.
Yesterday, 280,000 Icelanders were reminded who they are: pariahs of the big green world community of animal lovers. As their government announced the breaking of an international moratorium that has banned commercial whaling worldwide for 20 years, the Australian government called Iceland’s decision “a disgrace”, and just about every western environmental group leapt to fire cliches at them. Icelanders were condemned as “irresponsible”, “unacceptable” and “insane”, and the decision was “the thin end of a dangerous wedge” and “deliberately provocative”. Japan and Norway, the world’s only other significant-sized whaling countries, watched the reaction carefully and, despite all the outrage, may now move to follow Iceland’s lead.
In fact, however, Iceland’s decision has changed very little. The three main whaling countries have never accepted the ban and have been effectively whaling commercially ever since it was imposed. Diplomatically, they have called it “scientific” whaling and, under the cloak of research, have been allowed to carry on killing as before. Iceland has, since 2003, been given a “quota” of 39 minke whales a year, enabling its scientists to declare that whales eat a lot of fish and that stocks of minke and several other species in the north Atlantic are in good health. Not, of course, that there was any need to kill several hundred whales to find this out.
Iceland’s decision to resume commercial whaling is probably based on fear, more than money or even self-image. Polls have repeatedly shown that 70-80% of Icelanders support commercial whaling and the government has long threatened to play the nationalist card. It also claims that the industry is economically essential to the country. This, though, is nonsense. All of Iceland’s whaling is done by one company, owned by one powerful family in Reykjavik who are subsidised by the Icelandic government. While the government says it is economically essential to continue whaling, there is little evidence that it supports more than a few seasonal jobs. Indeed, whale watching is far more important to the country.
And there is barely a market for the catch. In 2004, just a quarter of the whale meat taken by the Icelandic whaling fleet was actually sold. The country’s industrial freezers are full of unsold whale from previous seasons. A recent poll of Icelanders by anti-whalers found that only 1% of Icelanders eat whale meat once a week or more, while 82.4% of 16- to 24-year-olds never eat whale meat. Meanwhile, the international market is saturated. The Norwegians, who maintain whaling to keep their remote northern coastal communities politically sweet, failed to meet their quota of whales last year, yet still had to turn some of the catch into pet food. Meanwhile, the Japanese are reportedly handing it out to schoolchildren.
Sigrun Davidsdottir, an Icelandic novelist and economic analyst, says that whaling was never a major economic factor in Iceland. “Foreigners were whaling in Icelandic waters from the 15th century, even running whaling stations there. In 1916, Iceland banned whaling to protect its dwindling fish stocks. Whaling was only a seasonal activity and most products were exported. It amounted to roughly 2% of the export of fish products. As in Norway and Japan, the issue is about the right to whale.
“The Icelandic republic was only founded in 1944 – the country had been under Danish rule – and, in the Icelandic mind, the battle for independence is still going on. Whaling doesn’t matter very much, culturally or economically, to anyone in Iceland. But behind this decision is a real fear that if we allow ourselves to be dictated to about whaling, then the world will start telling us what we can and cannot fish. This is what is really important. The real issue is fishing, and safeguarding our fishing grounds.”
But whaling is far too important to be left to whalers. For north American, British and European environmental groups, it is now the most important symbol of man’s abuse of the global commons, and arguably animal conservation’s greatest global success. The commercial ban, which has prevented thousands of whales being killed, is both popular and politically important. For most western governments with active animal conservation groups, being on the side of the whales is the one time they can be seen to support green activists. Indeed, the genuine passion with which the British and American governments have fought to maintain the whaling ban is only matched by their deep ambivalence about green issues in many other international meetings.
Humans’ attitudes to whales have turned full circle in only two generations. From medieval times, whales – and their first cousins, dolphins – were regarded as no more than an economic resource and were slaughtered in vast quantities for oil, meat, “baleen” and ambergris whenever they came near European or American shores. The operation was strictly coastal: watchmen manned lookout towers and when whales were sighted, rang a bell to alert the boat crews. But as boats improved, the slaughter of the whales reached epic proportions. Populations were devastated in all oceans as an unregulated industry spread around the world. By the middle of the 20th century, many whale populations were severely depleted and by 1945 it was quite likely that some would be completely exterminated within years rather than decades.
The tide turned in the 1970s with the birth of Greenpeace. Images of small boats bobbing in front of harpoonists, and individuals trying to save whales from commercial hunters were some of the most potent of the past 50 years – they spoke of opposition to authority, protection of the innocent and, especially, revulsion at previous generations’ casual slaughter of life. Images of bloody whales, vivid accounts of lingering deaths and film of harpoons exploding deep in whales’ flesh revolted a generation and kickstarted both the animal rights movement and international conservation efforts.
Here is Captain Paul Watson, one of the original Greenpeace activists and now of Sea Shepherd conservation society, talking about the first time he tried to save a whale: “Above us a muscular blond ape of a man swivelled a mounted 90mm cannon. Jutting out from its mouth: a grenade harpoon five feet in length, with foot-long barbed flanges pivoted on hinges. The hooked flanges were bound down with light rope, waiting for the shock of impact to unleash its awesome promise of destruction. He was concentrating on the whales, oblivious to our presence. We were proud traitors to our species with the innocence to believe that somehow, someway, we could reach our fellow man with a message to end the whale wars and to silence the harpoon cannons.”
Along with the horror at how they were being killed came wonder and knowledge at how whales lived. They were given human attributes, found to sleep about eight hours a day, communicate with each other through song and give birth to a single calf. The young were found to mature late, the old to live for as long as humans.
Sceptical scientists say that this does not make them intelligent, but earlier this year new research suggested that whales and dolphins have something close to self-awareness. Bottlenose dolphins were shown to be able to recognise themselves in a mirror, a behaviour that until recently has only been recorded in humans and great apes. And some were found to carry sponges on the ends of their beaks to protect them when foraging for food on the seabed.
Mark Simmonds, director of science for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, who published the evidence, is convinced that whales are emotional, intelligent beings: “Evidence of the typically human emotions – grief, parental love and joy – as well as the existence of complex social interactions and structures are indicators of the highly developed intelligence of whales and dolphins,” he says. “In one example, despite the risk of dehydration, stranding and shark attack, a group of false killer whales floated for days in the shallows of the straits of Florida to protect an injured male. Such was their cohesion and reliance upon the group that individuals became agitated when rescuers tried to separate them, calming only when reunited.”
Iceland’s decision to resume commercial whaling comes at the most sensitive time for international whaling in a generation and threatens to set back marine conservation many years. Earlier this year, led by Japan and Norway, 30 small and poor developing countries with no real interest in whaling gained control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body that regulates worldwide whaling. Spurred by Iceland, it is possible that Norway and Japan will now leave the IWC and take a number of small countries with them. At the very least, the pro-whaling nations now hold the majority of votes, and the IWC is being slowly driven to abandon its conservation and welfare mandate.
Meanwhile, the whale wars are set to intensify, with the Japanese fleet preparing to head to the southern ocean in a few weeks’ time to kill endangered whales, and environmentalists ready to risk life and limb to stop them. “Iceland has just changed the rules. It’s going to get bloody,” said one conservationist yesterday.
Endangered? A guide to whales
Northern right whale The most endangered large whale in the world; the population is estimated to be about 350 animals. It was the first whale to be protected, in 1935, but numbers have barely recovered. Prized for centuries for its oils and bone.
Bowhead whale Commercial whaling severely depleted stocks in the early 1900s. Since the mid-1960s, the IWC has classified bowheads as protected and in the 1970s they were added to the Endangered Species List. Bowhead whales live exclusively in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters.
Blue whale The largest animal that has ever lived was down to perhaps 1,000 by 1950. Hunting stopped in 1967 and stocks are recovering. The latest estimate revealed 15,000 blue whales remaining worldwide. Pre-whaling populations were estimated at perhaps 300,000 individuals.
Fin whale Too fast for early whalers to catch, but nearly three-quarters of a million were killed from the early 1900s until the 1970s. They are now highly protected and numbers have recovered well.
Sei whale The global population is estimated at only 57,000, but numbers have plummeted following Japanese hunting. More than 25,000 were killed in 1964/5.
Beluga whale Highly sociable creatures that move in large pods. Numbers stand at around 100,000. One of the commonest whales, but populations are in peril in some areas.
Beaked whale Poorly known and believed to be very rare. Beaked whales are a deep-water, deep-diving species only rarely encountered by humans.
Sperm whale Sperm whales have the largest brain and were widely hunted because of the large quantity of sperm oil in their heads, which was sold for making candles and make-up. Populations have recovered, and are now stable at around 1 million.
Grey whale Hunted to the edge of extinction in the 1850s and again in the early 1900s. They were given full protection in 1947 and they have made a remarkable recovery. In 1999, there were 26,600 grey whales
Humpback whale Among the most endangered of the great whales. Population estimates suggest 2,000-4,000 remaining in the western North Atlantic. They are popular with whale watchers, and are known as the most vocal of all whales.
Minke whale At around 10 tonnes, the minke is the smallest of the seven great whales. Norway, Iceland and Japan argue that the minke is abundant and have been killing them regularly, even though they are on the endangered list.