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A Whale of an Agenda

June 23, 2002|JARED DIAMOND | Jared Diamond is a UCLA professor of physiology and public health, a director of the World Wildlife Fund and author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book ''Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.''

Some people like their whales dead, for the tons of meat and oil that they yield. Others like them alive. Those two views crashed head-on last month at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which entertained a Japanese proposal to pave the way toward legalizing commercial whaling, suspended since 1986. The commission has voted repeatedly against resuming whaling, and most of its longtime members showed no inclination to change that position. But Japan attempted to play a new card this year, inducing poor, nonwhaling countries (like Guinea and Gabon) to join the IWC and to vote for the proposal in return for Japanese foreign aid.

The outcome was a political disaster for Japan, which not only lost the vote but so outraged even its allies that some of them withdrew their support. Still, no one expects this latest battle to settle the long-running whale wars. The commission plans to meet again in October to set out terms by which any future commercial whaling would be carried out. In November, the Japanese will try to convince the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species that minke whales are now so abundant as to deserve less protection. While these passionate debates are in the first instance about whales, they also involve broader questions of how best to manage internationally valuable biological resources, and how Japan as a densely populated island nation will feed itself. All sides in the dispute have their own agendas.

The arguments against whaling are of two types: ethical and economic.

Most of us take a middle ground on treatment of animals: We object more to killing dogs and chimps, say, than to killing bacteria and worms. We justify such distinctions because of the animals' different capacities for social relationships, intelligence and feeling pain. Whales (along with primates) are closest to humans in these respects, and so arouse strong feelings.

Those who support a ban also make an economic argument based on whales' position at the top of the ocean food chain. Both on land and in the sea, the functioning of ecosystems depends disproportionately on their top species: Knock out those controlling players and you're likely to mess up the whole ecosystem. Paradoxically, reducing whale numbers may end up reducing numbers of those fish species that humans eat, as some whales may especially eat predatory fish preying on fish eaten by humans. For a long time, Japan denied that whaling would reduce whale numbers. Recently, Japanese defenders of whaling have done an about-face: They now accept that charge wholeheartedly, so much so that they propose to resume whaling in order to reduce whale numbers, because whales are (it is claimed) voracious fish-eaters competing with humans and responsible for recent worldwide declines in catches of most ocean fish.

The answer to that argument is a no-brainer. Most whale species don't compete for food with fish-loving humans, because they instead eat tiny plankton, deep-ocean squid and small fish. The most common remaining large whale species, the minke whale, consumes mainly krill (tiny shrimp), plus minor amounts of two species of small fish (sandeel and capelin) scorned for human consumption. It is disingenuous to argue that minke whales are taking food off Japanese tables.

Whales and fish have coexisted for 50 million years, but many whale populations have declined by more than 90% in the last 200 years because of whaling, so fish numbers should have soared by Japanese reasoning. In fact, most ocean fisheries have been crashing recently for an obvious reason: the huge and rising populations of ocean-going fishing boats, not the vestigial populations of ocean-going whales. Whales are now eating fewer fish, and humans are eating more fish, than at any previous time in history.

When the IWC banned commercial whaling, Japan announced that it too would give up commercial whaling. Within a year, however, it declared that it would instead carry out something different, called "scientific whaling," in which whales are supposedly killed to gain information about their diet and population structure. Of course the whales thereby killed (this year's target is 700) are still sold for food, just as were commercially hunted whales.

Fifteen years of scientific whaling have resulted in only a handful of papers published in scientific journals to report any research results. That has led many scientists to conclude that Japanese whalers are not killing whales to do research but are doing research as an excuse to kill whales.

Nonlethal methods yield much more information about the questions addressed by this so-called scientific whaling. Examining whale feces gives reliable samples of whale diets, while biopsies tell us a whale's average diet over its lifetime. In contrast, a dead whale's stomach contents represent only the last meal the whale ate before it was killed.

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