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 cannot fault the logic there.

    As someone who’s unashamedly conservation minded (call me a greenie), I am a little bit contrarian in not really understanding what the fuss about non-thretened whales is. By all accounts, minke whales have healthy, expanding populations, and the level of cruelty in catching them is no different to that found in your average abattoir, and far less to my mind than that in a piggery, or in the production of veal, or cage hens. So while I and msot of the rest of the world still eat meat, and while we have some barbarically cruel practices still operating successfully for our domestic markets, a well-regulated whale hunting industry seems perfectly acceptable.

  2. I think whales are treated differently to other animals (especially fish) — many endangered fish species are hunted and sold, just go to your local Sushi bar and play identify the species. If that doesn’t work, then go down to one of the big fish markets.

  3. Conrad, while I wouldn’t claim these things are done perfectly, there are general prohibitions on hunting endangered species in most countries and Australian policy limits catches of most fish species (in fact, I think all of them by now) to levels that are supposed to be sustainable. Of course, such rules are dodged for both fish and whales.

    Most institutions change their functions over time, Terje. Parliaments were formed to protect the interests of aristocrats and clergy against monarchs. Later they were “hijacked” by democrats. Appealing to historical purpose is rarely of much value in arguments of this kind.

  4. John,

    I make the observation merely because I think it is historically interesting and worthy of note. Not every statement represents an attempt at argument.


  5. While I’d regard myself as an environmentalist I do not have a problem with traditional whale hunting per se but with the super efficient factory ship whaling that is employed. If the whalers were made to row to the whale and use hand harpoons at least it would give the whale a chance and limit the catch to a sustainable level (per whaler).

    Whale and fish numbers were historically only threatened when it became to easy to expolit them.

  6. I don’t see that there’s any way of resolving this disagreement on the basis of generally shared principles;

    What about assigning certain species restricted sub-human rights? This would depend on how close those species came the human standard of moral personhood. Obviously this depends on the general level of intelligence, sentience and capacity for consciousness that such species enoy.

    Personhood should be sub-strate neutral. So super-intelligent animals, Asimovian robots and nicely mannered aliens should all be qualified for the rights of personhood.

  7. Jack, “intelligence, sentience and capacity for consciousness” are a bit tough to measure, I’d say. We have a hard enough time with humans who can talk.

    And from all indications, an octopus is as smart as a dog. Complex abstract problem-solving, memory tasks, the capacity for “mischief” etc. Do we try to test ALL animals, or do mammals get a special privelege?

    And who’s going to administer the tests? Pay for them?

    Eat ’em all and let God sort ’em out, I say.

  8. It seems that at the last moment the vote has gone against the anti-whalers. I have seen whales many times on whale-watching expeditions and would myself vote against any proposal to resume commercial whaling. They are charismatic megafauna.

  9. You are quite right John that there is a fair bit of hypocrisy in the stance of whaling nations. The issue is nothing other than “when can you eat another living creature� and we really need Pete Singer involved in this discussion.

    It seems to me that the fact that cows and pigs are domesticated and owe their very existence to their value as meat is highly relevant to the case for eating them. (Not that this is a sufficient condition!) And I would think that the whales being physically independent of and most-times inaccessible to the human sphere of influence should give them some special status. What’s in it for the whales? But maybe this is muddle headed nonsense. Eating meat is just another of the many important moral issues that I have failed to come to grips with – despite reading Singer.

  10. > I don’t see that there’s any way of resolving this disagreement on the basis of generally shared principles;

    I disagree.
    Everyone should be able to agree with whaling providing that it is sustainable whaling.

    If it is, then the whale watching industry can continue to flourish as well.

    Lots more on my blog about whaling

  11. I spent six years as a vegetarian. Even though I took up eating meat again 18 months ago I still feel somewhat conflicted by the issues.

    I am personally more comfortable with eating wild things that are killed during a hunt than eating domestic things that are farmed so that they may be eaten. The issue of a violent death is of less concern to me than the issue of a miserable life. I would rather live free and face a possibly violent and unexpected end than live a boring life and predicatable life. At least I think I would.

  12. I too consider myself an environmentalist (greenie, if you like) but I don’t think that the sentimental attachment myself and many others have to whales is a good enough reason stop the sustainable whaling of the more prolific species.

    David Allen touches on the subject of “traditional hunting”. It is a myth that traditional hunting practices haven’t resulted in extinctions. All New Zealand Mega Fauna (giant birds known as Moas), some American Mega Fauna (eg giant sloths) and most Australian Mega Fauna (eg giant wombats, giant kangaroos) were most probably rendered extinct by hunter gatherers.

    As regards Kangaroos, many environmentalists, including Tim Flannery, concede that some species are now far more numerous now than they were at the time of European colonisation. This includes the Red and Eastern Grey species. Sadly, other species have gone extinct or are barely holding on mostly due to predation by cats and foxes.

    ps. I saw you on the 7:30 report tonight PrQ. That beard of yours is an absolute ripper- once it greys you will look like a cross between Moses and Karl Marx 🙂

  13. When I use the term traditional hunting I thinking more along the lines of the Inuit rather than the Moari. The Moari suffered from a population explosion which made up in numbers what they lacked in technology to expolit NZ’s resources.

    The exploitation of any resource is best when there is a balance between the extraction of the resource and its replenishment.

  14. Question: if you’re okay with whale-hunting and -eating, how do you feel about eating chimps, gorillas, or orang utangs? (setting aside the fact that they’re very endangered.) If you’re uncomfortable with that, or allowing others to eat chimps, would you reconsider whaling?

    Not that I know if the big whales are that smart — big brains, but big bodies for the brains to control. I suspect dolphins and elephants are at about the same level as the great apes though — and oddly, ravens and parrots might be competitive as well. Certainly apes, dolphins, and African Gray Parrots all seem to have proto-linguistic capability.

    “The Oracle is clear. That which talks is not food.” — “primitive” tribe in Schlock Mercenary.

  15. Firstly, I don’t like eating carnivores or omnivores, so chimps are off the menu, secondly, they’re very endangered.

    Apart from that, I’m totally squeamish about it and would never do it, but I know that plenty of Africans survive on ‘bush meat’ and have no qualms whatsoever, and I suspect you wouldn’t have to go too many generations back into my anglo-saxon heritage to find the idea of gorilla on the menu not too bad an idea. So it’s not some universal morality.

  16. Damien – let’s not confuse mimicry with the construction of meaningful language, shall we? Even with apes/dolphins, you seem to be suggesting that if a creature can make itself understood TO US then it’s intelligent. Hubris? It’s certainly the case that most animals have *some* language. Does this mean they all “talk”?

    Who knows what’s going on in the head of a giant squid? Who wants to pay to find out?

    Terje – I’m with you. If it’s lived a more or less natural life, and isn’t endangered, and dies reasonably swiftly, that’s much better than many forms of farming. I would add that if these conditions are met, intelligence is irrelevant.*

    My personal motto – don’t eat anything you’re not prepared to kill yourself.

    * (aside) Why does the capacity to suffer convey a greater right to life? Does this apply to the intellectually impaired, or those in a coma? If so, that’s a pretty neat utilitarian way around the ethics of euthanasia.

  17. The Independent (UK newspaper) of 19/6/06 has a good article on what happened at St Kitts. This is an extract:

    ” In a stunning diplomatic coup, Japan and its allies, including Norway and Iceland, won a voting majority in the IWC for the first time, as a result of a remorseless 10-year Japanese campaign to secure the votes of small African and Caribbean countries in exchange for multimillion-dollar foreign aid packages.

    At the IWC meeting at St Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, the pro-whalers scraped home on a catch-all resolution that condemned the moratorium as invalid, blamed whales for depleting the fish stocks of poor countries, and attacked environmental pressure groups campaigning against whaling such as Greenpeace.

    The vote on the so-called “St Kitts and Nevis Declaration” was won by 33 votes to 32, with one nation – China – abstaining. The Japanese had been widely expected to achieve a majority in the meeting after bringing three new states into the IWC this year to vote on their side – Cambodia, the Marshall Islands and Guatemala – but they had lost four earlier votes by narrow margins.

    Yet that does not matter now. The simple 51 per cent majority they have now secured will not allow them to scrap the moratorium directly – for that they need a majority of 75 per cent. But for them it is an enormous moral victory, and its significance was immediately realised by opponents and supporters of whaling alike.”

    Interested readers who want to read the whole article need to access the link quickly because the Independent removes stories from online access after only 2 or 3 days.

    Whatever people’s views on the rightness or wrongness of whaling, we see the manipulation of the Commission’s membership for a specific end by interested governments.

    Prof. Quiggin says “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.”

    Does this mean that, if a majority of Australians are opposed to whaling, Australia should join with other opposed countries to “branch-stack” in the other direction?

  18. Maybe the minister for the environment should talk to an old friend of his (and former senator) for advice on branch stacking. That way we could make the IWC as big as the General Assembly and make sure nothing sensible ever comes out of it again.
    On one other issue raised above – maybe we should impose an intelligence test as the threshold. Instead of “that which talks is not food” we could have “that which has an IQ below x is food”.
    It would be difficult to get a giant squid to fill in one of those multiple choice papers though. Even a cow would have problems.

  19. Dolphins are smart, whales on the other hand are nothing more than large cows of the ocean. They conjuer granuer and brilliance, but there is no reason, unless you are a vegetarian, to oppose sustainable usage of non endangered whale species such as minke whales.

    I am an environmentalist, and i have so much respect for the Japanese interms of their environmental policy. They are leaders in the world in terms of recycling and reuse, energy efficenciy, forestry and resource usage and obviously kyoto. Our envionrment minister, on the other hand, is nothing but a populist do nothing except save the whales. Time to show real leadership on real issues such as global warming and waste disposal, instead of canning wind farms and winding back land clearing legislation.

  20. I’m conflicted on this. I agree there’s nothing wrong with sustainably harvesting whales. We should distinguish “conservation” arguments from “animal liberation” arguments, and I don’t usually have much sympathy for the latter.

    But look at the appalling conservation record of the IWC when whaling was allowed. Given that the struggle over the moratorium has made it even more corrupt and divided, can anyone think they will impartially and effectively set and enforce appropriate limits?

  21. What do people think about the proposed crocodile hunting safaris in the Northern Territory? I have mixed emotions about it since it is not about the need for food, nor about the need to reduce numbers (as far as I am awre). Superficially I agree that it is wrong to sell the right the kill them for sport but my hypocrisy shows through – I enjoy fishing. I don’t think it is the size of the crocodile that puts me off the idea (like some have said the size of the whale might matter). I suspect it is the idea of the safari as a rich mans sport while any poor fellow can go fishing.

  22. On one other issue raised above – maybe we should impose an intelligence test as the threshold. Instead of “that which talks is not foodâ€? we could have “that which has an IQ below x is foodâ€?.

    I hope I don’t fail…

  23. I’m not confusing mimicry with meaningful language. Apes, dolphins, and that species of parrot all have research where they’ve constructed novel sentences according to syntactic combinations, and been able to understand novel commands referring to things not present in the room. I suspect that ravens and elephants could be taught as well; there’s certainly anecdotes about elephants understanding spoken language, but I don’t know of rigorous research. That said, the cognitive abilities of bottlenose dolphins don’t necessarily say anything about those of larger whales.

    whales: I suspect there’s a difference between toothed (hunting) and baleen (cow-like) whales. I could imagine the tootheds being a lot smarter. OTOH, the rich songs of the humpbacks come from a baleen species, and elephants are giant herbivores but are pretty smart. Thing is there seems to be a food-acquisition track and a social track to intelligence. Apes get both, but either one may work.

    Of course there’s no universal morality regarding animals, but then the universal morality regarding humans is fairly limited itself. “Don’t kill or steal from members of your own tribe, don’t steal your neighbor’s wife.” But what morality appeals to people now, regarding animals arguably smarter than our own very small children?

    I don’t have any answers, but I wanted to make the question explicit.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. “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?

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. > 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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