The largest animal on Earth is proving that wildlife protections work.
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By Joe Roman
One of the most important global conservation events of the past year was something that didn't happen. For the first time since 2002, Iceland — one of just three countries that still allow commercial whaling — didn't hunt any whales, even though its government had approved whaling permits in early 2019.
The Ecological Value of Large Marine Mammals<p>For years, ecological studies of whales focused on how much fish they ate or krill they consumed, which represented costs to fisheries. Starting around 10 years ago, my colleagues and I took a fresh look at <a href="https://doi.org/10.1890/130220" target="_blank">whales' ecological role in the ocean</a>.</p><p>Whales often dive deep to feed, coming to the surface to breathe, rest, digest — and poop. Their nutrient-rich fecal plumes provide nitrogen, iron and phosphorous to algae at the surface, which increases productivity in areas where whales feed. More whales mean more plankton and more fish.</p><p>Whales also play a role in the carbon cycle. They are the largest creatures on Earth, and when they die their carcasses often sink to the deep sea. These events, known as whale falls, provide habitat for at least a hundred species that depend on the bones and nutrients. They also transfer carbon to the deep ocean, where it remains sequestered for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0012444" target="_blank">hundreds of years</a>.</p><p>Whales are economically valuable, but watching them brings in more money than killing them. "Humpbacks are one of the most commercially important marine species in Iceland," a whale-watching guide told me one morning off the coast of Akureyri. Whale-watching income <a href="http://www.joeroman.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Malinauskaite-2020-Willingness-to-pay-for-expansion-of.pdf" target="_blank">far outweighs the income from hunting</a> fin and minke whales.</p><span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a358b32ad9f7adf7be2b639f54702c55"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/fFtcK1cK1ro?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The end of Icelandic whaling?<p>For years after the international moratorium on whaling was adopted in 1986, only Norway allowed commercial whaling. Japan continued hunting in the Antarctic under the guise of "scientific whaling," which many whale biologists considered <a href="https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2003)053%5B0210:WAS%5D2.0.CO;2" target="_blank">unnecessary and egregious</a>.</p><p>Iceland also allowed a research hunt in the 1980s, with much of the meat sold to Japan, but stopped whaling under international pressure in the 1990s. It resumed commercial hunting in 2002, with strong domestic support. Iceland was ruled by Norway and then Denmark until 1944. As a result, Icelanders often chafe under external pressure. Many saw foreign protests against whaling as a threat to their national identity, and local media coverage was distinctly pro-whaling.</p><p>This view started to shift around 2014, when European governments refused to allow the transport of whale meat harvested by Icelandic whalers through their ports, en route to <a href="https://phys.org/news/2014-05-japan-imports-tonnes-whale-meat.html" target="_blank">commercial buyers in Japan</a>. Many European countries <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/MEMO_14_529" target="_blank">opposed Icelandic whaling</a> and were unwilling to facilitate this trade. Whalers no longer looked so invincible, and Icelandic media started covering both sides of the debate.</p><p>In May 2019, Hvalur — the whaling business owned by Kristján Loftsson, Iceland's most vocal and controversial whaler — announced that it wouldn't hunt fin whales, which are <a href="https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/2478/50349982" target="_blank">internationally classified as vulnerable</a>, this year, citing a need for ship repairs and declining demand in Japan. In June, Gunnar Bergmann Jónsson, owner of a smaller outfit, announced that he <a href="https://www.icelandreview.com/news/no-whaling-this-summer/" target="_blank">wouldn't go whaling</a> either. These decisions meant that the hunt was off.</p>
A Generational Shift<p>For many Icelanders, whale meat is an occasional delicacy. Over dinner a few months ago, I met an Icelandic woman who told me she thought whale was delicious, and she didn't see why whaling was such a big deal. How many times had she eaten whale? Once a month, once a year? "I've had it twice in my life."</p><p>About a third of Icelanders now <a href="https://www.ifaw.org/eu/news/no-fin-whaling-in-iceland-in-2019" target="_blank">oppose whaling</a>. They tend to be younger urban residents. A third are neutral, and a third support whaling. Many in this last group may feel stronger about critiques of whaling than about hvalakjöt, or whale meat. Demand for hvalakjöt in grocery stores and restaurants has started to dry up.</p><p>Although few observers would have predicted it, whaling may end in Iceland not through denial of a permit but from lack of interest. How long until the world's remaining commercial whalers in Japan and Norway, who face similar shifts in taste and demographics, follow a similar course?</p>
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New research finds that the western South Atlantic humpback population is well on its way to recovering from the devastating impacts of commercial whaling.
Humpback whale tail in vertical position. Picture taken off northern Bahia, Brazil in September 2009.
L. Candisani / Courtesy Instituto Aqualie<p>Protection measures for humpbacks adopted in the 1960s and the broader moratorium on all commercial whaling adopted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the 1980s appear to have reversed that downward trajectory, however. There has been no hunting of the species since 1972, the report states, which is when the recovery really took off.</p><p>"Once protected, [western South Atlantic] humpback whales have recovered strongly, and their current abundance is close to 25,000 whales," the authors of the study write. That means that the current population is estimated to be at 93 percent of its numbers prior to the exploitation by whalers that nearly extirpated the entire population. The researchers add that there is "a high probability" that the population will be "nearly recovered," meaning that it will have hit 99 percent of its pre-exploitation abundance, by 2030.</p><p>This is a much more successful recovery than previous estimates had allowed for. The IWC completed an assessment of the status of all seven Southern Hemisphere humpback whale populations in 2015, concluding that the western South Atlantic population was at just 30 percent of its pre-whaling numbers. But the researchers behind the present study say that more complete data that have become available on catches, genetics, life-history, population size, struck-and-lost rates, and trends in abundance have allowed them to make a more accurate assessment than the IWC.</p><p>"We were surprised to learn that the population was recovering more quickly than past studies had suggested," study co-author John Best, a University of Washington doctoral student, said in a statement.</p><p>The study's findings are good news, according to the study's lead author, Alex Zerbini of the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center's Marine Mammal Laboratory, because they show that an endangered species can come back from near extinction. "Wildlife populations can recover from exploitation if proper management is applied," Zerbini said in a statement.</p>
50,000 pairs of penguins on Saunders Island.
Jim Wilson.<p>Of course, the recovery of the humpback population will have important implications for their ecosystems, especially in the sub-Antarctic waters of the South Atlantic Ocean where the whales spend the summer and early autumn feeding primarily on Antarctic krill. The humpbacks must compete with other predators, like penguins and seals, for the 1.5 to 2.6 million metric tons of krill they're estimated to consume in a single season at their present numbers. Krill populations could also be impacted by warming ocean waters due to climate change. Understanding the potential effects of predators like humpbacks is therefore crucial to improving management of krill fisheries.</p><p>"The recovery of humpback whales in the western South Atlantic has the potential to modify the structure of the ecosystem in their feeding habitats around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands," Zerbini said. "For this reason, it is important to continue monitoring abundance and potential shifts in distribution to understand how krill and their predators, including whales, will respond to effects from climate change and whether these effects will impact their populations."</p><p>"The progressive recovery of humpback whales in the sub-Antarctic region studied in this paper is a conservation achievement," Dona Bertarelli, co-chair of the Bertarelli Foundation, which supported the research through the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, said in a statement. "Full protection by the UK of the waters around the South Sandwich Islands is needed to help safeguard these whales' food source, krill, and help ensure this population's full recovery."</p>
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Despite a global ban on commercial whaling more than 30 years ago, Japan has caught about 200-1,200 whales every year since 1987—including pregnant and juvenile ones—under the exception of "scientific research." Opponents have fiercely criticized this research program as just a cover so the whales can be killed for human consumption.
Now, the national broadcaster NHK reports that the Japanese government wants to fully resume commercial whaling by pulling out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Commercial whaling was paused in 1986 by the IWC because some whales were hunted to near extinction.
Japan is proposing a slew of rule changes at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Florianópolis, Brazil this week that conservationists worry would ultimately lift a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.
Japan, which launched a "scientific whaling" program in 1987 as a loophole to the moratorium, has killed more than 15,600 whales in the Antarctic since the ban (including juvenile and pregnant minke whales), according to a report released last month by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).
For years, the Japanese government has hunted whales under the name of "scientific research." Now officials are angling to resume commercial whaling at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting this September in Brazil.
At the meeting, officials "will propose setting a catch quota for species whose stocks are recognized as healthy by the IWC scientific committee," Hideki Moronuki, an official in charge of whaling at Japan's fisheries agency, told Agence France-Presse.
Japan's whaling vessels returned to port with 333 minke whales on Friday after its months-long Antarctic hunt.
The Fisheries Ministry said the whales were killed in the name of science.
Ninety percent of the minke whales hunted and killed each year in Norwegian waters are female and " almost all" of them are pregnant, according to a documentary aired earlier this month on NRK, a government-owned public broadcasting company.
You can always expect to see Captain Paul Watson on the front lines of the battle to conserve and protect marine ecosystems for wildlife. He and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been doing it for nearly 40 years.
In a stunning victory for the whales, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague announced their binding decision today in the landmark case of Australia v. Japan, ruling that Japan’s JARPA II whaling program in the Antarctic is not for scientific purposes and ordering that all permits given under JARPA II be revoked. The news was applauded and celebrated by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society USA and Sea Shepherd Australia, both of which have directly intervened against Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean.
Greenpeace International is another organization that has been campaigning against whaling for more than 30 years. In this 1992 photo Greenpeace protested against the factory ship Nisshin Maru in the Southern Ocean. © Greenpeace / Robin Culley
Representing Sea Shepherd in the courtroom to hear the historic verdict were Captain Alex Cornelissen, executive director of Sea Shepherd Global and Geert Vons, director of Sea Shepherd Netherlands. They were accompanied by Sea Shepherd Global’s Dutch legal counsel.
The case against Japan was heard by the ICJ in July of last year to decide whether Japan is in breach of its international obligations in implementing the JARPA II “research” program in the Southern Ocean, and to demand that Japan cease implementation of JARPA II and revoke any related permits until Japan can make assurances that their operations conform with international law.
In a vote of 12 to four, the ICJ ruled that the scientific permits granted by Japan for its whaling program were not scientific research as defined under International Whaling Commission regulations. It ordered that Japan revoke the scientific permits given under JARPA II and refrain from granting any further permits under that program.
Prior to the verdict, there had been some speculation that the ICJ would not permit the hunting of endangered fin and humpback whales, but it would compromise and allow the hunting of minke whales. However, it has been Sea Shepherd’s contention all along that—no matter the species—no whales should be killed, especially in a sanctuary. Sanctuary means “a place of refuge or safety; a nature reserve” where animals are protected. To allow killing in an internationally designated sanctuary is to make a mockery of international agreements made by those countries who established the sanctuary in 1994. At that time, 23 countries supported the agreement and Japan was the only International Whaling Commission (IWC) member to oppose it.
Even the Ambassador from Japan to the U.S., Kenichiro Sasae, during a public meeting in Los Angeles in Dec. 2013 attended by representatives of Sea Shepherd USA, had this to say about whales and whaling: “As an individual, I like whales and if you go out and see the whales, there is no reason for us to kill this lovely animal. But it’s history and it’s politics, I would say. There are a small number of Japanese people still trying to get this won. But mainstream Japanese are not eating whale anymore.” At the same meeting, Ambassador Sasae stated that Japan will abide by the ICJ ruling.
“With today’s ruling, the ICJ has taken a fair and just stance on the right side of history by protecting the whales of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and the vital marine ecosystem of Antarctica, a decision that impacts the international community and future generations,” said Captain Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd Global.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s international volunteer crew stood on the frontlines in the hostile and remote waters of Antarctica for eight years and then Sea Shepherd Australia took up that gauntlet for the last two years and will keep confronting Japanese whalers in Antarctica until we can once and for all bring an end to the killing in this internationally designated “safety zone” for whales.
Over the years, Sea Shepherd has been the only organization to directly intervene against Japan’s illegal commercial whaling conducted under the guise of research, with their claims of research globally questioned. Indeed, Sea Shepherd has been the only thing standing between majestic whales and the whalers’ harpoons, as these internationally protected species—many of them pregnant—migrate through Antarctic waters each year.
“Though Japan’s unrelenting harpoons have continued to drive many species of whales toward extinction, Sea Shepherd is hopeful that in the wake of the ICJ’s ruling, it is whaling that will be driven into the pages of the history books,” Cornelissen said.
“Despite the moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan has continued to claim the lives of thousands of the gentle giants of the sea in a place that should be their safe haven,” said Sea Shepherd Founder, Captain Paul Watson. “Sea Shepherd and I, along with millions of concerned people around the world, certainly hope that Japan will honor this ruling by the international court and leave the whales in peace.”
Sea Shepherd Global will have the ships prepared to return to the Southern Ocean in Dec. 2014 should Japan choose to ignore this ruling. If the Japanese whaling fleet returns, Sea Shepherd crew will be there to uphold this ruling against the pirate whalers of Japan.
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