Even as conservationists promote whale watching over whaling, the debate is shifting. A new report says that whaling nations are focusing less on whether rebounding whale populations should be hunted and more on whether they are threats to marine ecosystems.
“The debate on managing whale killing is moving to the question of how much of the reduced productivity of the oceans and coasts should remain available to whales,” says Peter Corkeron of the Norwegian Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture in Tromsø in the June 2004 issue of Conservation Biology.
Since being internationally protected in the 1970s, some populations of large whales have rebounded, and whaling is now on the rise. Norway resumed its commercial hunt for minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in 1993, and Japan and Iceland both hunt whales in the name of research.
However, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and other nongovernmental organizations still oppose whaling and instead promote whale watching as an alternative way to make money. The whale-watching industry has increased greatly in the last decade (the dollar value has grown by an estimated 12 percent per year), leading some to ask whether this harms the whales.
But whale conservationists may be missing the boat. As fisheries decline around the world, the debate is shifting from hunting whales to culling them. “To nations with whalers… whales are no longer natural resources to be managed sustainably but are competitors for fisheries,” says Corkeron. In 2003, Japan stated that whales eat up to six times more marine fish than people do and that sustainable fisheries should not be compromised to protect abundant whales. Similarly, Norway is calling for ecosystem-based management of “vast stocks” of whales and seals to protect fisheries.
Norway currently pays a bounty for hunting gray seals and has culled whales in the past. For example, in the late 1970s killer whales (Orcinus orca) were culled off the Norwegian coast after herring stocks crashed due to overfishing. Whale culls may lie in the future, too. “The logical extension of this idea is that whales should not be allowed to recover to environmental carrying capacity but rather are in need of culling under the name of ecosystem management,” says Corkeron.
Corkeron, P.J. 2004. Whale watching, iconography, and marine conservation. Conservation Biology 18(3):847-849.
Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) Photo by Morten Lindhard