It’s March 2020. You are pacing the grocery store aisles, frantically searching for the inexistent products on the shelves. The World is in the midst of a global pandemic, and you cannot find even the basics; no toilet paper, no hand sanitizer, no masks. The food shelves are also scarce; you have never seen anything like this before. But, you need these supplies. No other store has them, and going into public is risky enough with the pandemic going on. Nevertheless, you cannot do anything about the lack of resources, because everyone else had already depleted what you needed. This is the tragedy of the commons.
An eerily similar narrative occurred throughout the epoch of commercial whaling, largely from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Within this period, it is estimated that:
Around 3 Million Whales were killed in what is believed to be the most immense cull of an animal in human history
This is with respect to total biomass. This widespread practice was for the cultivation of whale products to be sold and distributed on a commercial scale, especially for oil. A comparison can be made between the historical value of whale oil and the present-day value of petroleum and gasoline in order to understand the large role commercial whaling played in some countries.
As society progressed, new oil sources were discovered. Whales no longer played a pivotal part as a fuel source, hence making commercial whaling unnecessary.
The International Whaling Committee (IWC) put a halt to the practice of commercial whaling in 1982 to protect the species in what is known as the “Moratorium.” Signed into effect in 1946, the IWC was created on the basis of ensuring the “proper conservation of whale stocks and thus [making] possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.” Eighty-eight countries currently make up the body of the IWC, with some notable exceptions being Japan, Norway, and Iceland. The argument of tradition is commonly cited for their non-cooperation. Several aboriginal groups worldwide continue to hunt whales as well, but not on a commercial scale as do the aforementioned nations. These groups are much more sustainable in practice, respecting the creatures and not letting the kill go to waste.
On October 17, 2022, the IWC had its first Convention after 4 years due to delays from Covid-19. Several critical issues were brought up in regard to voting on the future of whaling and ocean health. First, the Caribbean nation Antigua and Barbuda sought to commence discussions to reinstate commercial whaling and its management methodology. The irony arises in the fact that Antiga and Barbuda has failed to pay their membership fees to IWC for the past 3 years. Second, several nations raised concerns surrounding food security and thus, the necessity of whales as a food source. Last, the EU, UK, and USA centered their discussions on plastic pollution and the detrimental effects that this has on cetaceans.
The Convention did not go as planned. No voting was actually conducted, which left the IWC in a sensitive yet critical condition. It is critical that the Moratorium is upheld in order to protect marine health and the implications of that thereof. The resurgence of commercial whaling is not only completely unnecessary, but it would reverse the major steps taken towards protecting our oceans and marine life as a whole.
To better understand the counterarguments to the topics surrounding commercial whaling that were brought up in the recent Convention, it is useful to approach the situation from the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
SDG 2 is Zero Hunger. In correspondence, one of the central issues brought up at the recent Convention was food security. Whaling, however, does not provide a solution to the SDG goal for several reasons. The ocean is home to innumerable human-made contaminants that are consumed daily by marine life. Evidence has come out that the consumption of cetacean products in particular relates high-levels of internationally recognized pollutants to the consumer, causing impairments in pre-and post-natal developments in children and adverse health in adults, according to an analysis by Ocean Care. Hence, it is an unreasonable argument for pro-whaling nations to make that the commercialisation of whaling helps to ensure food security, as the consumption of cetaceans has proven negative health effects on humans. Thus, this would contradict SDG 3, Good Health and Well-being.
Next, we will touch on SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG 14, Life Below Water. Commercial whaling is unsustainable by definition. Historically, the practice put the species on the brink of extinction, reducing some types like the Antarctic blue whale to less than one percent of their prior population levels. While whales of all types are significantly harmed by this process, they are not the only marine animal that suffers from the consequences of the practice. Roughly 300,000 marine mammals are caught as bycatch annually, meaning that hundreds of thousands of animals not intended to be caught are captured. Further, the commercialization of whaling removes an integral part of the marine health cycle from our oceans. Whales offer large contributions to marine health in both their life and death, even referred to as ecosystem engineers. One study found that whales and seals may be responsible for the annual replenishment of 23,000 metric tons of nitrogen in the Gulf of Maine, resulting in a contribution greater than all rivers put together.
The argument that commercial whaling is vital to counter food insecurity and should be reinstated has no integrity. Whaling on such a level is inherently unsustainable and poses a great threat to marine health and biodiversity. Countries like Japan are setting a poor example to the rest of the world in their unwillingness to comply with the IWC regulations and continuing to hunt whales commercially. The argument of tradition is not a valid argument against exploiting the earth and its resources. No one is safe from the tragedy of the commons, especially not marine life.
Featured image by: Wired