Fluffy Whale Syndrome

The following is the full text of a letter I submitted to the Independent, published there in edited form on March 13, 2004. Though nearly ten years old, I believe my observations remain pertinent.

Frustratingly so.

Sir: The anti-whaling argument, (‘A simple reason to stop whaling: it’s cruel’ Independent, 09/03), is a classic case of drawing everyone’s attention to the purported mess in another’s back yard so as to avoid the need to clear up one’s own. As things stand, many would argue there is more of a threat to whales from pollutants, entanglement in fishing nets and over fishing of other stocks such as cod disturbing the ecosystem than from the harpoons of Norwegian fishermen, but such observations are a little inconvenient given the fact that we ourselves might do something about such problems at some cost to ourselves.

One of the more unedifying political spectacles is the odd whaling debate in parliament where MPs rise as one to condemn a practice that affects not a single British voter. Much the same may be said of the IWC, composed as it is predominantly of non-whaling nations. When the Norwegians agreed to the moratorium on whaling in 1986 it was on the condition that the situation was reassessed five years later. When the time came they were refused a hearing. Far better for most IWC members to simply bar discussion outright. Of the 40 nations in the IWC, 22 have not been involved with commercial whaling since the IWC’s inception in 1949 and an additional ten nations ceased involvement before the 1980s. The handful of nations the moratorium actually affected are hardly likely to be able to raise the issue seriously within the IWC in future. Small wonder, then, that the Norwegians have chosen to go their own way. What has a landlocked IWC member like Switzerland to gain from lifting the ban on commercial whaling? Concerned with the livelihood of their citizens, the whaling nations are outnumbered by those able to score free eco-points by their refusal to enter into serious debate.

I spent some months in the Norwegian Lofoten Islands, very much dependent upon whaling. Located north of the arctic circle, in darkness through the winter months and with snow likely even in mid-summer, this is not an area much suited to farming. They have cod as an alternative to whales to be sure, but others in the EU – including ourselves – have seen to it that they have little. Whaling is not some dispensable addition to the livelihood of the Lofoten islanders; it is central to it and there is little that might replace it. Indeed, when I was there every member of the community I spoke to was directly or indirectly dependent upon it. Yes, it is true that the Lofoten Islanders use explosive harpoons. What your article failed to mention was the fact that this ostensibly gruesome, horrific means of killing whales was actually made mandatory by the IWC itself in 1980 to cut down the kill time thus to reduce the suffering of the animals. Cold harpoons resulted in a far more painful and lingering death, and yet somehow explosive harpoons have now entered the mythology of whaling as themselves symptomatic of the cruel intent of the malevolent hunter.

Hunting is a messy business to be sure. Clearly it doesn’t have the fast kill times of commercial farming. Are we, then, to stop all hunting,
anywhere? Are we, for example, to ban safari tour companies that will take you out to Africa where you can kill Grant’s gazelle, East African impala, wart hog, wildebeest, hartebeest and zebra for no other reason than the pleasure of the kill itself? I have yet to hear voices raised in great numbers on that particular practice. Our parliament, swift in its condemnation of whaling, seems a little more mixed in its feelings when it
comes to the tearing apart of the humble British fox. In reality, is farming any better than hunting? The patchwork-quilt English countryside is
a virtual desert when it comes to wildlife. And can anyone say they would truly prefer to live the life of a British beef cow with its artificial
existence and a premature death guaranteed over the life of a minke whale? If the kill time of an explosive harpoon can be up to an hour, what is the kill time of BSE? We don’t know, we don’t care. Your cow is a pragmatic animal; whales are fluffy and cute. The whale sings a beautiful song; a cow says ‘Moo’. Cows find it hard to make friends.

While we self-righteously fend off the Norwegians’ explosive harpoons, we continue to pump pollutants into the waters in which the whales live and to lay out fishing nets in which they are caught unintentionally to drown, unable to rise to the surface for air. Perhaps if the IWC were to extend its discussion beyond harpoons and into the realms of fishing nets and pollution we’d find many of its members somewhat more equivocal in their love of whales. The last thing they want us to realise is that some of their corpses might just be in our back yard after all.

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