Sun, Jan 21, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Our ongoing fascination with whales

From Moby Dick to the Thames bottlenose, whales have captured the human imagination like almost no other animal

By Stephen Moss  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Watson's commitment to violent action, which led to his departure from Greenpeace, has alienated many conservationists, who believe his organization's sinking of several Icelandic and Norwegian whaling ships served only to inflame public opinion in those countries. But there is no doubt that his willingness to meet fire with fire has struck a chord with the Free Willy generation, tired of the obfuscations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and its easily breached moratorium on commercial whaling. I have spent a week trying to grasp what the agreement means and I still haven't really got a clue. I suspect a lifetime might not be enough.


The moratorium was agreed in 1982 and, in theory, should outlaw commercial whaling. But Japan has continued to whale for supposedly "scientific" reasons, even though everyone knows these are bogus, while organizing a pro-whaling bloc on the IWC to overturn the moratorium. Norway, though an IWC member, has never accepted the agreement and has carried on regardless. Iceland's position is even more opaque -- it left the IWC in 1992 in protest at the moratorium even though it had given up whaling, then rejoined in 2002, recommenced "scientific" whaling in 2003 and started commercial whaling again last autumn, in breach of the moratorium.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says the IWC and its moratorium "lack teeth" -- an extremely polite way of putting it. Without necessarily condoning the actions of "Captain" Watson -- as he styles himself -- you can see what drives him to it, and what attracts his idealistic young recruits.

Commercial whaling took several species of whales to the brink of extinction. Some, notably the North Atlantic right whale, have never recovered. Blue whales number only a few thousand, whereas, according to marine biologist Sidney Holt, before 1930 there were a quarter of a million feeding in the Antarctic. But Holt is no pessimist. He says that, despite all the loopholes and the fact that countries can enter a "reservation" against the agreement, the 1982 moratorium came just in time to rescue the whale. Although right whales continue to struggle -- they seem to have a peculiar propensity for being run over by transatlantic shipping -- other species are now doing better. The grey whale has recovered its former numbers and the humpback is also recovering.

The pro-whaling case is put by the Norwegian-based High North Alliance, which celebrated Iceland's resumption of commercial whaling in November.

"They had not forgotten how to whale," it enthused. "In just two weeks the Icelandic whalers took seven fin whales ... Fin whales are huge animals. Those caught were 18-21m long, each providing about 15 tonnes of meat and blubber."

Not that Icelanders are that keen on whale meat -- only 1 percent eat it once a week or more. According to critics, Iceland's refusal to bow to international pressure is as much about cultural sovereignty -- the "right to whale" -- as it is about commercial gain.

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