Whaling season by Quentin Bates

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It’s whaling season again and some of us again heave a sigh of disappointment that this should still be going on. I’ve always made a point of defending Icelanders’ right to manage their own resources, catch their own fish in their own waters, dig tunnels through their own mountains if they feel that’s what needs to be done.

But the whale thing is uncomfortable, but like most so many issues that initially appear black and white, scratch the surface and different aspects of the picture emerge. There’s whaling and there’s whaling. There’s industrial whale catching, now virtually extinct, and there’s small-scale artisanal whale hunting that takes place in many countries, including Canada and the US. A great many people wouldn’t agree, but there’s a world of difference between industrial catching for export and fishermen working their own boats to hunt a small number of animals for local consumption – as with the Faroese pilot whale hunt which is purely a community effort. No money changes hands, nothing is sold, and the meat is divided between the participants’ families.

It’s sensitive. People don’t like to think of these handsome animals being slaughtered, and it’s not a pretty sight. On the other hand, it’s indistinguishable from what happens in any slaughterhouse that supplies the raw materials for packaged and sanitised burgers or sausages. Nothing goes to its death happily, regardless of whether that happens in the open or behind securely closed doors.

There’s even a drive at the moment by one environmental group at the fruitcake end of the green spectrum that has sent its activists to the Faroe Islands to disrupt Faroese pilot whale kill. Maybe they hadn’t realised, but the pilot whale hunt isn’t a regular event. If it happens, it’s almost an ad hoc thing that could take place in any one of dozens of fjords or coves and the locals aren’t likely to let the activists in their distinctive black vehicles marked with the organisation’s logo know about it. Strangely, the activists seem surprised that the air keeps leaking our of their car tyres. I’m just surprised that’s all they have had to worry about, but the Faroese are a peaceable people and not given to violence.

There’s so much about these issues that’s difficult to take in once you have the benefit of a little insight into the facts of the cases and also some of the devastating hypocrisies. Let’s face it, the war on whaling was won when the 1986 moratorium came into force. The fact that there are relatively small numbers of marine mammals hunted here and there, almost exclusively for domestic consumption in coastal regions of as part of aboriginal hunts (although the definition sometimes gets stretched…) is neither here nor there.

The sole exception is the Icelandic fin whale hunt, which does leave a sour taste. There are some unsavoury politics behind the activities of the single company that has the few 1940s-vintage ships capable of doing this and which can only be running its activities at a whopping loss. The only market is Japan, and getting a cargo of the frozen meat shipped around the world is a major undertaking as no shipping company or port will touch it with a bargepole. The last shipment went in a reefer that sailed from Iceland to Japan, sailing the long route around the Cape of Good Hope and without calling anywhere on the way.

But there is no hunting of endangered great whales anywhere, or even of smaller whales. There’s a struggling population of fin whales in the Southern Ocean, but they are common in northern waters. There are instances of small populations of cetaceans that are threatened by coastal construction, new dams and the like. Habitat loss is a far greater threat than direct hunting. But the authorities in countries where this happens are more likely to sling activists into jail without bothering with niceties like trials than tolerate them and wait politely for them to go away, as the Faroese are doing.

There are no mechanisms for a return to whaling. The infrastructures are long gone and the skills have been lost, and any demand for whale products is vanishingly small. Whaling on any scale has gone and it isn’t coming back, and it’s only a matter of time before Iceland’s fin whale hunt fizzles out; either when the government declines to renew licences or when it’s finally taken on board that it’s not worth supplying a market that has at best a lukewarm interest in whalemeat laden with heavy metals.

When you take into account the amount of cash it takes to send dozens of activists and their smart new cars and camper vans to the Faroe Islands, you have to wonder what the thinking is, considering the myriad other environmental problems taking place around the world as wilderness, mangroves and rain forests disappear almost before our eyes.

The big eNGOs no longer campaign seriously on whaling issues. Maybe they’ve figured that the battle has been comprehensively won already and whale hunting is an environmental sideshow. They, and their shadowy and extremely wealthy backers – and believe me, there’s a tale and half to be told there – have bigger fish to fry.

It’s time to move on. There are bigger and far more urgent battles that desperately need to be won.

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