Aboriginal whale hunting: does it make a difference to the whale?

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Considering many scientists who’ve worked closely with cetaceans are advocating that they receive similar rights to life that we reserve only for people because of their advanced cognition and empathy capabilities, it seems that allowing any whales, dolphins or the like to be killed should be considered murder.

But the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the international body that imposed the 1986 whale hunting moratorium, still allows something called aboriginal subsistence hunting to go on legally, which is responsible for more than 8,000 whales killed since that year.

Thanks to efforts of the Sea Shepherd and their notoriety on Animal Planet’s Whale Wars we all know that the IWC also allows Japan, probably cetaceans’ worst national enemy, to take about 1,000 whales a year for “scientific purposes.” Everyone knows that’s wrong. But the hunting of whales and dolphins by people who claim they need whales to die for them to live is something very few are willing to speak out publicly against.

And there’s good reason. The Alaskan Eskimos have been hunting bowhead whales for thousands of years and when they kill them, they actually eat all the meat and use the rest of the whale. This seems in the spirit of what aboriginal subsistence hunting should mean. I still believe to look at it objectively we should ask ourselves if they were killing and eating people for subsistence we would probably get involved to stop it immediately and force them to find an alternative source of nutrition or we would provide it for them. Since we know cetaceans are as aware as us, we can make that comparison.

Whale SlaughterStill, if I were to picture true (or as true as it can be this deep into the throes of civilization) subsistence hunting, I would think of the Eskimos. But the photo of an orca harpooned off the coast of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and another of a knife-wielding melee of people attacking the carcass of a Humpback whale waist-deep in scarlet sea water on the same island confused me (among other things). How was this allowed?

It seems that this island nation is allowed four humpback whale kills a year under the IWC’s aboriginal subsistence hunting exception. Seeing as the native aboriginal people of all the West Indies were exterminated soon after Europeans began colonizing the islands, this exemption is difficult to understand.

According to the West Indian Wildlife Conservation Society, the Japanese have provided St. Vincent and the Grenadines harpoon guns and membership in the IWC in exchange for votes supporting Japan’s whaling industry. The society also alleges that hunters have been targeting mothers and calves in speed boats when the IWC’s rules state that traditional methods using hand-thrown harpoons on small sailboats must be employed.

At the end of the month, the IWC will conduct another meeting where it sets whaling quotas for the next six years for aboriginal and scientific purposes. Quotas for bowhead, gray, fin, minke and humpback whales, to be hunted by groups from the United States, Greenland, Russia, St. Vincent and The Grenadines, are up for renewal under the aboriginal subsistence exemption.

Many of these hunts in all countries claiming aboriginal exemptions are conducted using high-powered rifles and motor boats. If these groups want to use tradition as an excuse, than they should at least be making a show that they are using traditional methods.

But the lack of awareness of respect for cetaceans in St. Vincent and The Grenadines is horrifying. The American Cetacean Society reports that pilot whales are hunted weekly, and the orca in the banner photo is the second or third. As a beautiful tropical country it seems that they don’t have the same need for whale meat as Eskimos who live in sub-zero temperatures for much of the year.

The IWC will meet soon. The United States is no longer a leader in progressing toward a more just world by protecting those who can’t speak for themselves and who are persecuted. Dead whales are our penance for the mistreatment of the Native Americans by our European ancestors.

Many South American countries are now taking the lead in proposing a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic and South Pacific, essentially making the entire continent’s waters a no-kill zone.

I see nothing worthwhile in preserving the slaughter of the humpback whale in St. Vincent. If anything, it seems a detriment to a compassionate culture. If more people were aware of what goes on in this country, maybe tourism would suffer and whales would be worth more alive than dead.

Perhaps Tim Zimmermann said it best on his blog. A point that must be kept in mind as we judge from the riches of the First World is that “the slaughterhouse and industrial farming practices that produce the meat eaten by many who are outraged by whale hunting, are equally cruel and barbaric. So there is an issue of moral consistency that needs to be addressed, as well.”

  • Tina Page

    Tina is a journalist and mother of three who's lived all her life in the South Bay of Los Angeles except for a two-year stint in the heart of Spain. She believes humans have the capacity to make this a beautiful world for all species to live, and mothers have a special charge to raise their children to enjoy, love and respect all creatures.

6 thoughts on “Aboriginal whale hunting: does it make a difference to the whale?”

  1. There is a factual error in the article. The International Whaling Commission does not ‘allow’ Japan to kill whales.

    Japan declares its own quotas and issues its own ‘special permits’ to kill whales as a unilateral action.

    The IWC has repeatedly called upon Japan to stop killing whales in multiple resolutions.

    For example, ‘Resolution 2007-1’ in which the IWC: “FURTHER CALLS UPON the Government of Japan to suspend indefinitely the lethal aspects of JARPA II conducted within the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.”

  2. Japan has been permitted to hunt whales in International Law. It is because extremely clear fishing. Whale fishing of investigation of Japan. In IWC and the United Nations in the Antarctic Ocean, it is done in the managed sea area. Fishing in illegal sea area in Japan? The Antarctic Ocean and the South Pole are the territories under the United Nations management. Australia is selfishly insisting territorial waters of the home country on the Antarctic Ocean. This is a breach of international law. Australia is a breach of international law. In Australia, it is a current state not satisfactory of the condition of the trial beginning. The reason why the trial doesn’t start. Therefore, the trial will not be done.

    You are misunderstanding it. The whaler of Japan is not a commercial ship. The oceanographic ship that the government in Japan manages. It is managed by a Japanese tax. The whaler of Japan is the same international ship as the warship.

    the possibility as food is more necessary. I have hope in the possibility of the whale meat as the food of Africa where poverty continues.

  3. Though I agree wholeheartedly with the latter half of this there are a couple of points that need scratching.
    ” IWC also allows Japan…”
    It’s true the IWC has passed resolutions asking Japan to stop whaling, but if the author had written “IWC regulations allow Japan …etc.” it would have been perfectly accurate. Until the IWC revises its own regulations I can’t see any progress in stopping the abuse of loopholes in them. It’s what corporations do all the time!

    “[Japan], probably cetaceans’ worst national enemy,”

    This is what some activists would have you believe, but in fact the numbers of cetaceans killed by tuna fishing are magnitudes greater than all of Japan’s hunting, as are the numbers killed by ship-strikes and entanglement in fishing nets, not to mention the damage done by seismic testing and sonar.

    Skim this article for some of the horrific figures:

    If the IWC were to abandon the moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan would no longer be able to subsidise its whaling under the guise of research, nor (given the recent reports on whale meat sales) would the industry be able to support itself.
    It would die a natural death.
    Game over.

  4. I’m not sure I’m following your train of thought here, Tina.

    You clumsily bookended an article that talks about traditions in whalehunting with paragraphs about the ethics of killing animals. Cool.

    But the bookends don’t actually work together. Should we call it murder to kill an intelligent being, or should we call it murder if it is done in an inhumane fashion? They’re mutually exclusive… They paint different sides of the picture.

    Maybe it’s because I don’t think intelligence is a worthy characteristic to compare beings with humans. To say killing a smart dolphin and killing a human is both an account of murder seems silly.

    If I killed a sufficiently intelligent computer that has advanced cognition and empathy capabilities, would you call that murder? If we could clone a new whale species and genetically modify them so that they don’t have advanced cognition and empathy capabilities, would it be okay to kill them? I question using intelligence as a way to categorize personhood.

    In comparison, the ending quotation by Zimmermann was much more sound because it brings to light our tainted morality. It’s a much stronger foothold for arguing whether or not we should kill for meat. I question why you didn’t use a similar point in the beginning of your article.

  5. Hi Tina,

    I’m not disagreeing with the ethics of killing whales, but I do need to point out that your claim “the native aboriginal people of all the West Indies were exterminated soon after Europeans began colonizing the islands” isn’t true. I’m part Carib Indian, and Carib indians do exist and live in the Island of St Vincent and St Lucia, and possibly some other Islands. I hear of people who of Tiano Indian origin too from other islands, so please do a little background research before making assumptions and phrasing them as facts.

    Now, I don’t claim that anyone in my family lives a rural or traditional life (i’m only a tiny part indian, form a few generations ago), but I have been through Carib villages and they do live a very simple life (bathing in the river, etc). Whether these are the people practising whaling i don’t know, but it’s also irrelevant to an extent since the largest number of whales (even in comparison to the Japanese Scientific killings) are from overfishing, ocean pollution, collisions and other far less bloody acts that nontheless kill more than twice the number of whales killed by industrial whaling, far less the comparatively tiny number by aboriginal killings.
    It’s emotionally upsetting to see such photos, but the reality is our efforts are best focused on the number one whale killers, not the acts that give the worst photos.

    I don’t have the source of this numbers but since I get the newsletters of most oceanic conservation trusts (as well as sea shepherd) to inform me, a little googling should land you on a reputable source that backs this up.



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