The votes at the International Whaling Commission look to be going in favour of whales and against the advocates of whaling, an outcome that owes a lot to the efforts of the Australian and NZ governments. Given that the issue is going to be debated again and again, it’s worth considering how well Australia’s anti-whaling position stands up to criticism. A relevant point is that we have not, for example, responded favorably to international campaigns against the culling of kangaroos (a point made by the Japanese delegate I saw on TV last night).

To start with, there seems to be little disagreement about the principle that endangered/vulnerable whale species (and other cetacean species) should not be hunted at all, and in this respect, whales aren’t treated any differently from other animals.

Let’s suppose, though, that some whale species aren’t endangered, or maybe that they will cease to be endangered some time in the future. Then, in general terms, the dispute is between people who want to protect whales because they like them, or want to help the whalewatching industry, (and maybe object to the way in which they are killed, but this is an issue that could be dealt with separately) and people who want to kill whales either to be eaten as a delicacy item or to keep the whaling industry going.

I don’t see that there’s any way of resolving this disagreement on the basis of generally shared principles; so within any given community it seems appropriate to resolve it on the basis of majority vote. So this would imply that if most Japanese support whaling in Japanese coastal waters, the Australian government shouldn’t try to prevent this through the IWC, although of course environmental groups should be free to criticise and campaign against the practice (exactly the same position applies with Australia’s kangaroo policy).

As regards international waters, I reach the same conclusion; there’s no first-principles way of resolving the dispute, so it should be decided by voting. In the absence of any general system of resolving such international disputes, the IWC is the relevant forum, and its voting rules (unsatisfactory as they may be) are the rules to go by. Since most Australians like whales and want to protect them, the Australian government is right to push this point of view, and to seek as much international support as it can.

40 thoughts on “Whaling

  1. I am a vegeaquariam, that is I eat fish but not other vertebrates. I adopted this compromise position initially because I swore off beef and pork on environmental grounds, and then later chicken because of the horrific conditions of factory farms.

    However, I’ve retrospectively decided that there is some merit to it – I refuse to accept that a mosquito has any rights, but I also can’t see how great apes, who are capable of creating novel sentences and doing mathematics can be considered merely objects.

    The only consistent positions I can see are “if it ain’t human we can kill it if we like” and a continuum of rights based on intelligence (and perhaps sensitivity to pain). Hard to measure, and of course most people prefer black and white categories to spectra, but it seems to me the only ethically meaningful way to operate.

    In the case of primates, elephants and dolphins I think the evidence for intelligence is so clear that their rights have to be respected. How smart whales are is certainly disputed, but the songs of Humpbacks are so remarkably complex that I think they deserve at least some provisional status.

  2. alphacoward Says:

    Dolphins are smart, whales on the other hand are nothing more than large cows of the ocean.

    Damien Says:

    whales: I suspect there’s a difference between toothed (hunting) and baleen (cow-like) whales.

    For the avoidance of doubt, it should be pointed out that balen whales aren’t vegetarians. They don’t eat phytoplankton except by accident. They eat the krill, fish and squid that eat either the phytoplankton, or the things that eat the phytoplankton. In other words, the whales are the carnivores at the top of the food chain.

  3. “How smart whales are is certainly disputed, but the songs of Humpbacks are so remarkably complex that I think they deserve at least some provisional status.”

    Pigs are possibly more intelligent than whales and dolphins, yet who among us would give up bacon because it offends Jew and Muslim cultures?

    Maybe the song of the humpback is “remarkably complex” but does this really tell us anything? We seem to discover more about animal communication all the time. Many species of social animal have a at least a few vocalisations that convey meaning, for instance Meerkats have at least 20 “words” in their vocabularly. Even sheep may have a few.

    A more important consideration might be whether a particular species has an ability to suffer long term emotional damage as a result of fearing for its life or the loss of a family member. Do whales have a capacity to suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

  4. AFAIK baleen feeding behavior is pretty similar to grazing. Sure, they’re eating small animals rather than plants, but…

    Technically the ones on top (besides humans) are orcas, which eat the whales. 🙂 (At least for the smaller whales, or the young of even blue whales.)

    I really doubt pigs are smarter than dolphins. But you almost raise a good point (the flaw being that Jew and Muslim notions of cleanliness are irrevelant to whether something is too smart to eat.)

    The emotional damage is a good question. I’ve seen claims of mourning behavior among elephants, such that culling of whole family groups rather than picking off a few is advocated by some. (Another issue is loss of the old matriarchs, who pass on the behavioral “culture”.) Whale PTSD certainly seems plausible to me, but I don’t know.

  5. I agree that emotional damage is probably more important than intelligence per se, but I think the two go hand in hand, (hand in flipper?), and hard as intelligence is to measure it’s probably easier than a propensity for post traumatic stress disorder.

  6. The more I think about it, the more I like the “branch-stacking” idea. Economists should like it too, because since the process is pure bribery it should be a test of how much we are willing to pay to save whales.

  7. From wiki:

    ” many anti-whaling campaigners claim that cetaceans are still among the most intelligent of all nonhumans, and it is therefore morally wrong to kill them for food. However, those in favor of whaling point out that pigs are also amongst the most intelligent of animals, and that it is inconsistent to claim that pigs can be used for food, and whales not, all other considerations notwithstanding. Thus, in the view of pro-whalers, if the slaughter and consumption of another somewhat “intelligent” land animal is a non-issue, then similarly, protestations against the slaughter and consumption of whales cannot logically be ground on the basis of intelligence.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling

    I do recall reading of experiments that show pig intelligence is on par with that of chimps, although I am unable to find any reference to this on the Web.

    Irrespective of the above, Australia has a legitimate interest in the conservation of those whale species that support whale siting tourism.

  8. Steve: yeah, I don’t see anything like that. I did find mention of teaching pigs to play a video game, and that “they displayed more focus than any chimp”. Since the entire chimp species is half-jokingly diagnosed with ADD, I’m not too surprised. I’ve seen bald claims that pigs are ranked by some under humans, dolphins, and apes, but no data.

    One test which comes to mind is the leash around a tree. Reputedly a dog which gets itself wrapped around a tree will never unwind, just bark, while chimps can do that easily. Leash a pig…

    Anyway, beyond the difficulty of defining relative intelligence across species, there’s a shortage of data relative to anecdotes. Only so many researchers, working with only so many species. Lots of reputedly smart species — squirrels, raccoons, bears… who wants to try to teach language to a bear? Right.

  9. Damien,

    you must be referring to the same research I am thinking of and my recollection is that pigs outperform chimps in computer games.

    Personally, I don’t care how smart pigs are. My enjoyment of bacon trumps my concern for the wellbeing of brainy boars.

  10. i don’t consider myself an ecowarrior of any sort- here are the facts. we have existed for 2.5 million years, whales have existed for 40 million years. whales have the largest brain of any known animal. they have access to 75% of the world’s surface, we have access to 25. they sing to each other on opposite sides of the world, we have only just invented the internet. they comfortably share food resources, while millions of us starve to death. while we work for a utopia, we are destroying just that. anyone associated with whaling makes me ashamed to be human.

  11. Yeah but whales commit mass suicide. So clearly they find themselves ashamed of being whale.

    And some whales torture seals just for fun so they are not all entirely pure and noble.

    And dolphins are like whales and they are mean to sharks. And everybody loves sharks.

    And maybe if we ate whales less people would starve. Well I did say maybe.

  12. Over at Jerry Pournelle’s site, I think it was, there was recently some material asserting that these large brain sizes are mostly because of the need for more heat-generating cells in a marine environment – not for neural activity as such at all.

  13. > they sing to each other on opposite sides of the world,

    Nonsense. The only species that actually sings is the humpback, and they do not sing to each other on opposite sides of the world. Humpbacks basically migrate north and south in a particular region, for example the Western Australia Humpback stock feeds on krill in the Antarctic during summer, migrates to the north west of Australia to breed in the winter, and then back south again.

    > we have only just invented the internet.

    This is a real achievement, unlike fantasties about whale super-communication.

    > they comfortably share food resources,

    There appears to be competition between some species of whales for food.

    > while millions of us starve to death.

    Recently large numbers of grey whales stranded on the west coast of north america, and scientists recognised that many were in very poor shape (thin). Scientists believe that this stock of whales has hit it’s carrying capacity in the environment.

    > anyone associated with whaling makes me ashamed to be human.

    Perhaps you ought to do a little more reading on the topic, if that is the way you feel.

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