Can Whaling Be Sustainable?

It’s been a difficult year for opponents of whaling. In August, Iceland announced it would resume whale hunting after a 14-year hiatus. Norway—the only nation in the world that has a commercial whale hunt—killed 647 minkes, the largest catch since it resumed whaling a decade ago. Meanwhile Japan, which kills nearly 700 minkes for "scientific" purposes each year, threatened to leave the International Whaling Commission after it passed a conservation-based resolution.

"Everyone agrees that there is an abundance of minkes in the North Atlantic and there is in no way any argument against [whaling] from an endangered species point of view," says Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries, Arni Mathiesen. Scientific surveys suggest there are some 43,000 minkes living around Iceland, and 107,000 in the territorial waters of Norway. "People should understand that we live in this environment and are trying to utilize it sustainably," he says.

But anti-whaling organizations argue that whale hunting is a barbaric practice best confined to humanity’s past. "There is absolutely no way to kill a whale humanely," says Chris Tuite of the International Foundation for Animal Welfare, who notes also that whale watching has become a $1 billion industry. Kate O"Connell of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society also argues, "There’s enough doubt about how big whale populations really are to have us worried."

But in countries such as Iceland and Norway, where people have been hunting whales for more than a thousand years, even environmental groups support whaling, arguing that it’s more humane and ecologically sound than the meat produced by industrial-scale farms. "As long as you can harvest the surplus without reducing the stocks significantly, we think whaling is a good thing," says Marius Holm of Oslo’s Bellona Foundation, perhaps Norway’s most influential environmental group.

"From an animal rights perspective, what’s the difference between eating whale meat and beef?" asks Rune Frovik, director of Norway’s High North Alliance. "With agriculture you’re destroying the habitat for wild animals and keeping animals in small cages."

Many Norwegians feel that the anti-whaling movement is based solely on emotion, and argue against convention (and despite the fact that whales are sophisticated communicators, and can learn and respond to more than 50 words) that there is little evidence that whales are more intelligent than many farm animals. "Most people get their food wrapped in plastic; they don’t see the kill," says Halvard Johansen, deputy director general of Norway’s Ministry of Fisheries.

But critics of whaling point out that the industry has an extremely poor conservation record. Nor is the science of whale management up to snuff, they argue. This summer the journal Science published a Stanford study that suggested the pre-whaling populations of North Atlantic humpback, fin and minke whales were far larger than previously thought. Despite that, Norway, Iceland and Japan would like to resume commercial hunting of humpback and fin whales.