Songlines - Why think of Whales at Christmas?

It’s Christmas, the humpback whales have gone south to their Antarctic feeding areas: out of sight, out of mind. So why should we think about the humpback whales at Christmas?

By Wally & Trish Franklin.
Photo – Paul Hodda,
Australian Whale Conservation Society.

Well one good reason is that the Humpback Whales will have unwelcome guests at their Antarctic Christmas krill-fest in the form of the Japanese whaling fleet!

Each year between May and November humpback whales travel along the eastern coastline of Australia tracking to and from their breeding and calving grounds within the lagoon of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. More than a million Australians and international visitors travel out into the whale's ocean domain aboard whale watch vessels from numerous ports, to spend brief periods of time in the company of these remarkable creatures as they undertake their annual migration.

Hundreds of thousands more people view the migrating Humpback whales from vantage points, such as Cape Byron, along the eastern Australian coastline. On a daily basis our newspapers and television screens carry images of encounters between humans and the whales, as the whales go about their daily social activities involving spectacular surface behaviours such as breaching, lob-tailing and pectoral slapping. We become passionately involved in the daily drama of their lives as reports come in of individual whales trapped in shark nets, stranded on beaches, fighting off shark and Orca attacks, or surviving being run over and wounded, sometimes severely, by recreational and commercial boats.

This annual and extraordinary engagement between humans and humpback whales has stimulated sixty eastern Australian communities to adopt known individual humpback whales, who return annually to eastern Australian waters. During June each year these communities organise and undertake a wide-ranging community based program of activities to celebrate the return of their adopted humpback along with rest of the eastern Australian humpback group.  Byron Bay celebrates the return of 'Yumbalehla' a breeding female.

When in 2006 Japan announced that they planned to kill 50 humpbacks a year in Antarctica for the next eighteen years, as part of their updated scientific whaling program called JARPA II, sixty Australian communities under the banner of 'The humpback ICON project' [1] made it clear in no uncertain terms that Australian humpbacks were off the menu! As a result of local and global public reaction Japan backed off killing humpbacks, but they have been to Antarctica each year since killing minke whales in the name of so-called 'science', each year threatening to take humpback whales; but as yet not doing so. Nevertheless Japan has not taken humpback whales off their 'scientific whaling' agenda and again this year their whaling fleet is on its way to Antarctica.

Since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted to implement a moratorium[2] on commercial whaling in 1986, Japan has used a loophole in the outdated IWC regulations to issue itself permits for 'scientific whaling' to avoid the moratorium and maintain its capacity to conduct commercial whaling. At the same time Japan began systematically building a block of 'friendly' votes at the IWC by encouraging small countries to join the IWC and pledge their vote to support Japan's position at the IWC in return for investments in the fisheries infrastructure in those countries [3].

At the 2006 meeting of the IWC, for the first time in 20 years since the 1986 moratorium vote, Japan used its block of friendly votes to obtain a simple majority to pass the 'St Kitts and Nevis Declaration' [4]. The wording of the declaration offers a clear insight into why Japan is at odds with the rest of the world over cetacea (whales, dolphins and porpoises). Specifically it declares; "whales consume huge quantities of fish making the issue a matter of food security for coastal nations". The key phase here is 'food security for coastal nations'! Since 2006 Japan has continued to use its block of 'friendly' votes to disrupt and distract the conduct of business at the IWC.

The issue of cetacea, for the majority of the rest world is aligned with the position taken by Australia at the IWC. In 1979 Australia conducted an enquiry into whaling the outcome of which was a report titled 'The Whaling Question'. In the report the Chairman of the enquiry, Sir Sydney Frost, informed the Australian Government that the attitudes towards whales of civil societies on a world-wide basis had changed, and that a majority of people believed whales had a right to exist and should be considered part of the 'global natural heritage'. Australia acted on this moral imperative and replaced its fisheries based whale legislation with the conservation based 'Australian Whale Protection Act of 1980'. Australia also declared it would pursue the moratorium on commercial whaling at the IWC, seek a permanent ban on commercial whaling and initiate a program of whale and dolphin research.

At the 2009 meeting of the IWC in Madeira, Australia presented a view that the future work of the IWC should be focussed on conservation and protection of whales and dolphins. Their position was backed by a report on the 'Global Status of Cetaceans' [5], prepared by scientists from the Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre. The report informed IWC delegates that 14 species of whales and dolphins were critically endangered or vulnerable, and that there was insufficient information to assess the conservation status of nearly half of the existing 86 species of whales and dolphins.

For Japan the whale issue is one of 'food security' and is a 'fisheries' issue; for Australia, and a majority of people in the rest of the world, the whale issue is about 'global heritage' and is a 'conservation' issue.

Dr Sidney Holt summed it up eloquently in a statement to delegates at the 2009 IWC meeting, on behalf of all non-government-organisations (NGO’s) attending the meeting as observers, when he said; “The wondrous, vulnerable whales will never contribute substantially to the food security of humans. Nor do they threaten it. Despite insistent propaganda they're not responsible for the troubles of the fishing industry” [6].

So what are the troubles of the fishing industry? In June 2006 the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) published a report ‘Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas’. They reported that: 75% of the world’s fish stocks are already fished up to or beyond their sustainable limit; there are 35 million fishing boats plying the worlds oceans and large industrial vessels (1%) take 60% of the catch: the world’s tuna fishery has declined 90% over the last 100 years and 30% of tuna caught goes to Japan. The world’s fisheries[7] are in trouble from overfishing, illegal fishing and the as yet, ineffective sustainable management of numerous fisheries.

Human impacts on fish and whale species have followed similar paths. Commercial whaling commenced in 700 AD and continuous unregulated and unsustainable commercial whaling on a worldwide basis bought the stocks of all species of the great whales to the edge of extinction by the 1930’s. Regulation of whaling only came into effect with the establishment of the IWC in 1946. Illegal Soviet whaling after the Second World War, especially in Antarctica, finally brought commercial whaling to an abrupt end in the early 70’s, because the whalers literally ran out of whales.

However the use of fish and whales by humans has been fundamentally different. Fish have and will continue to be used as a food source for humans. Whereas in the past whales were predominantly used by humans for oil, and a range of industrial and household goods and commodities. In our time a majority of the world’s people believe that whales have a right to exist and should be considered part of our global natural heritage.

Without question food security is an issue for all of us, not just Japan. There is however a global forum, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which deals with the issues related to global food security, including global fisheries. Australia’s Global Cetacean Report tells us that 14 species of cetaceans are endangered or vulnerable and that we are unable to assess the conservation status of nearly half the existing 86 species. Over and above that cetaceans are becoming increasingly threatened by human activities including fisheries interactions, habitat degradation, noise disturbance, vessel strikes, depletion of food resources through competition with fisheries and climate change impacts.

Clearly Japan needs to take its concerns over food security to the appropriate UN forum and stand aside from the IWC - the global forum for whales and dolphins – thereby allowing that body to get on with the essential work of the protection and conservation of the world’s ‘global heritage’ of whales and dolphins.

Further reading:

[1] Humpback ICON Project

[2] International Whaling Commission (IWC) Moratorium »

[3] Dr Sidney Holt 2006, “Propaganda and pretext: Japan's strategy to gain control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC)” »

[4] IWC 2006; St Kitts and Nevis Declaration »

[5] DEWHA - Conservation and Values - Global Cetacean Summary Report »

[6] Statement by Sir Sidney Holt on behalf of NGO observers at 2009 IWC meeting »

[7] PEW Marine Conservation Campaigns »

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