Norwegian waters turn to blood with the start of the annual whaling season. This year alone, Norway, Iceland and Japan plan to kill over 2,500 whales with cruel, primitive methods that go back to over a century.
Why is this ugly tradition still alive when 1 in 4 Norwegians under 30 are against it, and when so many people are aware of the high intelligence of these mammals and their ability to experience pain and suffering?
In this e-mail interview, Sharanya Prasad, marine mammal program officer, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) USA, talks about the origins of whaling, the methods the whalers use to kill the whales, what people can do to stop it, and the importance of educating the public, among other things.
First of all, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Norway’s whaling season, could you give us a bit of background on how this practice began?
I would like to begin by thanking you for giving me this opportunity to discuss whaling and the associated welfare issues with you.
Whaling refers to the hunting of whales for their meat and other products. Whaling dates back to the 9th century when the first large-scale whaling took place. By the end of the 19th century many countries had invested in this industry and developed major whaling industries. Today Japan, Iceland and Norway collectively kill over 2,500 whales annually, using methods that have not changed in over a century.
Why kill whales? What are they used for?
The development of modern whaling techniques was spurred in the 19th century by the increase in demand for whale oil, whale bone and baleen. Over time some species were hunted to the brink of extinction and it became apparent that sustainable whaling could not continue on such a large scale. Thus in 1986 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a worldwide ban on commercial whaling.
Whale oil has long been replaced by fossil fuels, and whalebone corsets are not considered fashionable anymore, thus modern whaling primarily has commercial value as a food source (whale meat). Countries that continue to whale have repeatedly announced their long-term intention of continuing whaling and resuming commercial trade in whale meat and products.
Despite the 1986 worldwide ban on commercial whaling, loopholes in the treaty still allow Japan, Iceland, and Norway to hunt whales. The three types of whaling conducted today are commercial whaling, aboriginal subsistence whaling, and so-called research whaling. Iceland and Norway both hunt commercially under an objection to the ban, allowing them to award themselves quotas outside the of the IWC’s recommendations. Japan hunts under the guise of conducting scientific research. The US, Greenland, Russia, and St Vincent and the Grenadines conduct aboriginal subsistence whaling. Whaling also occurs outside the IWC’s control by countries not party to the treaty such as Canada and Indonesia.
How are whales hunted down and killed?
The methods employed to kill whales have not changed in over a century and were originally developed by Norwegian whalers in the late 1800s. The weapon used is the penthrite grenade harpoon which is fired from a canon mounted on the bow of a ship. The harpoon is intended to penetrate into the whale before detonation and kill the animal through injury to the brain and spinal cord. The grenade creates a large, painful wound, which triples in size when the harpoon’s barbs hook into the whale’s body.
Despite the power of the explosive harpoon, a second penthrite harpoon or a rifle is often required as a secondary killing method used on whales who do not die instantaneously. The common use of secondary killing methods reflects the inefficiency of the primary killing methods.
Given the constantly moving environment in which whales live and are hunted and the sheer size and body mass of whales, it is impossible to guarantee instantaneous death for a whale being hunted at sea. If the weather, sea conditions or the motion of the vessel do not allow for a properly aimed shot, then there is a significant risk of a poorly placed harpoon or bullet causing an extended time to death and associated suffering.
How long does a whale take to die?
It has long been established that whales are intelligent, sentient individuals who are capable of experiencing pain and suffering. Data from the Norwegian Government itself reveals that 1 in 5 whales suffer long and painful deaths, some taking an hour or more to die after being hit with explosive harpoons. During this time, whales can suffer terribly. Whales’ bodies’ are adapted for diving and going without oxygen intake for long periods in water. This may mean that whales are able to experience pain over a period significantly longer than suggested by the current IWC criteria for determining death in whales.
What is WSPA’s position on whaling?
WSPA believes that there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea. This is due to the high number of uncontrollable factors (such as visibility, sea conditions, movement of the boat, distance, speed and gunner accuracy) which make a single guaranteed lethal shot almost impossible. A whale can almost never be killed in this way without it first enduring prolonged suffering. On these grounds alone, WSPA believes all whaling should be stopped.
WSPA also believes that responsible and sustainable whale watching which is now a multi-billion dollar segment of the eco-travel industry should be pursued as an economically viable and animal-friendly alternative to killing whales.
Are dolphins killed as well?
In addition to the large whales, tens of thousands of small whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as small cetaceans, are killed annually in hunting activities not regulated by the IWC. Some of the species hunted include pilot whales, pygmy killer whales and bottlenose, stripped and spinner dolphins. Some examples of these annual hunts include the dolphin drive hunts in Japan and the pilot whale hunts in the Faroe Islands. Furthermore, some whaling is conducted in Grenada, Dominica and St. Lucia.
Since Norway is not bound by the whaling ban, their government’s fisheries department has come up with a quota of 1052 whales in 2008. I cannot speak to how they came up with this particular number.
We all know that dolphins and whales are mammals just like us, and that this quality sets them apart from their other sea companions. In terms of their intelligence and family life, would it be fair to say that harpooning a whale with explosives is like harpooning a domestic dog in the same way ?
Cetaceans are extremely intelligent, social and sentient wild animals who are capable of experiencing pain and suffering. One of the analogies used to describe the harpooning of a whale is attributed to Dr. Harry D. Lillie (1947) who spent a season as ship’s physician aboard an Antarctic whaling ship. Dr Lillie said “If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck into its stomach and being made to pull a butcher’s truck through the streets of London while it pours blood in the gutter, we shall have an idea of the present method of killing. The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it.”
Why does Norway’s hunt continue despite the fact that Norway is a member of the International Whaling Commission and that 1 out of 4 Norwegians under 30 do not support the whaling in their country?
As I mentioned earlier, despite the 1986 worldwide ban on commercial whaling, loopholes in the treaty still allow Japan, Iceland, and Norway to hunt whales. Norway hunts commercially under an objection to the ban, which allows them to award themselves quotas outside the of the IWC’s recommendations. As for why they continue to hunt despite the lack of support among young Norwegians, this would be a wonderful question for a representative of the Norwegian government and if you or any of your readers gets an answer from them please let WSPA know.
What can Norwegians who are against this practice do to help stop it?
Norwegians can participate in petitions and events organized by WSPA’s member society the Norwegian Society for the Protection of Animals (Dyrebeskyttelsen Norge). To find out how you can support WSPA’s work around the world please visit http://www.wspa-usa.org/pages/8_ways_to_help.cfm.
What can non-Norwegian people do to help?
WSPA urges all readers to tell their government that it is time to refocus on whales. You can help WSPA remind the world that the argument should not be about kill quotas, but protecting whales from suffering by signing the petition at www.endwhaling.org.
Why do you think there still is so much indifference in the world when it comes to animal suffering?
In my opinion, awareness of animal welfare issues, sensitivity to the needs of animals, and the understanding that they are capable of and do experience pain and suffering determine the sensitivity of people to animal suffering. Educating people about animal welfare is crucial to animals, people and the environment. WSPA understands that real change in animal welfare does not come unless you can change hearts and minds of people, and therefore education is a central part of all our programs.
What can parents and schools do in order to instill human compassion toward animals to our children?
WSPA promotes humane education programs in schools to encourage respect for animals and responsible stewardship. We provide training on the humane treatment and care of animals and strive to put in place the laws and enforcement structures to provide legal protection for animals. WSPA’s aim is to develop compassion, a sense of justice and to teach others to respect animals and we have plenty of resources for educators to help them achieve this goal. If any of your readers are interested in learning how they can help instill these values in their communities they should contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also learn more about our programs by visiting our website at www.wspa-usa.org.