Every Antarctic summer, in front of a spectacular backdrop of calving icebergs, the Southern Ocean becomes the theater for an often-slow but occasionally action-packed show called The Whale Wars. The title of a reality TV program produced by the cable television company, Animal Planet, the phrase also suffices as a description of a conflict that has taken place for the past 35 years. This conflict, undoubtedly one of the most intractable environmental struggles of the modern era, pits a few resolute whalers and whaling nations against the combined forces of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Greenpeace, and numerous organizations and governments implacably opposed to whaling. The anti-whaling movement, I believe, is best compared to the abolitionist movements against slavery that arose during the 18th and 19th centuries. For abolitionists, slavery was simply wrong, a morally unacceptable vestige of a barbaric era. Compromise, therefore, was impossible. From this perspective, the idea of “reforming” slavery made no sense. Abolition was the only goal. The anti-whaling sensibility that characterizes the popular mindset in numerous non-whaling democracies dictates the same logic: Whaling is morally wrong. The discourse of scientific conservation, with its reliance on concepts such as maximum sustainable yield and carrying capacity, makes no more sense than “reformed slavery” would have to 19th-century abolitionists. For the world’s remaining whalers, the anti-whaling sensibility—initially a source of bemusement—has become the object of increased frustration and anger. Despite their efforts to behave as good ecological citizens—efforts that would be quite laudable in the context of most international conservation treaties—whaling is continuously portrayed as barbaric by many environmental organizations and governments, many of whom represent nations whose conservation and animal-welfare ethics would not bear much scrutiny. How did we get to this impasse? How have people attempted to solve the problems created by whaling in the past? And is there a way forward beyond the 1982 moratorium, which is, at best, a holding pattern?

From Laissez-Faire Exploitation to Scientific Conservation

In 1865, a Norwegian whaler named Svend Foyn invented a cannon-fired harpoon with an explosive tip, a device that suddenly gave whale hunters an enormous advantage over their pelagic quarry. The development of the factory ship in the 1920s, also by the Norwegians, turned whaling into an industrial pursuit. The result was a precipitous decline in the number of great whales, particularly blues, humpbacks, and fins.1

By the 1930s, whalers from Europe, Britain, Japan, the U.S., Australia, and South Africa plied the oceans and hunted whales at will. Despite a massive increase in the number of whales killed, and a dramatic population collapse that was obvious to virtually everyone involved, it made little sense for any individual whaling firm or nation to curb its practices. Every time a whale was killed, the cost, in terms of a reduction in the whale population, was borne by all, while the benefit, in terms of monetary profit, accrued to the individual whaler or to a single corporation.

After the war, the United States began to exert pressure on the whaling nations to agree upon a set of measures to regulate the whale hunt. In 1946, an International Whaling Convention was held in Washington, DC, that aimed, according to its organizers, to “conserve whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.”1 This Convention led directly to the formation of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body that, to this day, continues to be the sole regulator of whaling throughout the world. The Commission’s American framers, however, were faced with a dilemma: Why should nations agree to voluntarily join an organization whose prime purpose was to impose limits on the number of whales they could hunt? To allay the concerns raised by this issue, the framers included an “objection” clause in the IWC constitution. In order to dissuade a nation from simply stepping out of the IWC whenever it disagreed with a regulation, a rule was implemented that enabled any nation to file an objection to any clause it did not approve of, thereby exempting itself from the measure. The “objection” clause may have held the IWC together, but it also ensured that it remained a toothless tiger.2

The IWC turned to science as an objective arbiter, hoping that all whaling nations would agree to abide by the recommendations of cetologists and population biologists. But whales themselves could draw little comfort from the fact that laissez-faire hunting was being replaced by scientific conservation, particularly given the IWC’s inadequate enforcement mechanisms. However, throughout the 1960s, growing American-led pressure against whaling soon persuaded other nations to support an international moratorium. At the 1973 IWC meeting, the vote was eight votes to five in favor of a ban on commercial whaling.3 Despite the fact that conservationist forces were now in the majority, they still did not have the numbers to compel the IWC to adopt the moratorium. Any restrictive IWC ruling required not just a simple majority, but a three-quarter majority vote. The Japanese whaling industry’s response was to recruit Brazil, where they owned several whaling stations, to the IWC, a move that successfully staved off a three-quarter pro-moratorium majority at the 1974 IWC meeting. Nevertheless, international pressure forced the anti-moratorium nations to accept a pro-conservation regulation called the New Management Procedure (NMP). Rather than allowing industry interests to dictate hunting quotas, the NMP would adopt strict scientific quotas designed to ensure that whaling would continue on a sustainable yield basis. While the NMP initially placated the conservationist voices on the IWC, whalers nonetheless found multiple loopholes. The Mexican delegate to the 1974 IWC meeting summed up conservationists’ frustration with the Commission’s inability to reign in the whalers: “This Commission will be known to history as a small body of men who failed to act responsibly in terms of their very large commitment to the world, and who protected the interests of the few whalers and not the future of thousands of whales.”4

The efforts of the IWC and various nations to find acceptable solutions to the whaling dilemma were supplemented by some interesting ideas from scientists. Perhaps the most ambitious was that of Gifford Pinchot, a biologist and the son and namesake of the man commonly viewed as the father of 20th-century conservation. Pinchot felt that both world hunger and the extinction of the great whales could be prevented by simply turning whales into the cattle of the sea. His plan involved pumping deep-sea water into tropical lagoons in the Pacific Ocean. This would spur the growth of phytoplankton—great masses of aquatic algae—which would, in turn, be eaten by zooplankton such as krill. The most efficient way to convert this mass of stored energy into protein and fat for human consumption was to “farm” blue whales in the lagoons. In this way, the great whales, like the American bison before them, could be simultaneously saved and savored.5

The Anti-Whaling Movement

While the results of IWC-led conservation efforts were, at best, mixed, at least all the major parties—whalers, scientists, and policy makers—shared a fundamental understanding of the issue: Whales, like tuna, were a natural resource. While there were certainly disagreements about how many whales could be harvested each year, nobody suggested that the activity was somehow immoral. Discussions took place within the framework of scientific conservation, and disputes centered on the interpretation of scientific data. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the increasingly influential anti-whaling movement threw a wrench into the IWC’s epistemological works.

The history of the anti-whaling movement is part of the evolving view of animals that has accompanied modernity. Since the 19th century, middle class attitudes toward certain creatures have been characterized by a sense of sentimentality and kindness that was rare in earlier times.6,7 That this sensibility arose at the same time as the animal industrial complex is merely one of modernity’s numerous paradoxes. Whales joined the pantheon of sacred species somewhat late, but quickly rose to the top of the hierarchy. This was the result of specific cultural shifts that predisposed a large segment of the population in Western democracies to an anti-whaling sensibility.


Jackson Wong

The first of these shifts involved the establishment, beginning in the 1930s, of various marine theme parks, firstly in the U.S. and then in other parts of the world. The stars of these aquariums were the clever and playful bottlenose dolphins, whose tricks and apparent delight in interacting with humans won the hearts of millions. In 1965, the Seattle Aquarium exhibited the world’s first captive killer whale, an event that spawned numerous articles in major magazines and newspapers, and a series of captive killer whales have been kept at the various SeaWorld franchises. SeaWorld is a business, and it devoted little time and few resources to scientific studies. Instead, it concentrated on training its whales and dolphins to entertain the large audiences that poured through its doors. Such performances did little to educate Americans about how cetaceans lived in the wild, but they undoubtedly fostered a sentimental view of whales that anti-whaling groups such as Project Jonah and Greenpeace would later exploit.1,8

The sentimental anthropomorphism inspired by SeaWorld was perpetuated throughout the 1960s and 1970s by popular films, books, and songs. The movie Flipper and the subsequent television series of the same name featured a tame dolphin as a clever and courageous pet—a kind of aquatic version of Lassie—who frequently saved the day whenever his human friends got themselves into deep water. In his fantasy novel The Day of the Dolphin, French author Robert Merle created a scenario where dolphins were trained to speak with humans and to save the world from nuclear devastation.9 Such fanciful stories were clearly inspired by the work of John Lilly, whose cetacean research had led him to conclude that, eventually, humans would be able to communicate with whales and dolphins.10,11

Roger Payne, a scientist at Rockefeller University, supplied further evidence to bolster the theory that whales and dolphins had sophisticated communication systems similar to our own. Using a primitive hydrophone, Payne recorded the vocalizations of humpback whales near Bermuda. According to his analysis of the recordings the sounds were, in the truest sense, songs—discrete phrases repeated over and over and sometimes lasting for up to 30 minutes. Payne produced a record, Songs of the Humpback Whale, which introduced millions of people to the animals’ haunting sounds, which, in the context of the rapid demise of the species, could easily be interpreted as cries for help.1,12 Payne’s recordings inspired folksinger Judy Collins to record “Farewell to Tarawathie,” a New Zealand whaler song, using the humpback songs as her accompaniment.

The ultimate ode to this new cetacean construct was Mind in the Waters, a collection of articles, essays, and poems assembled by Joan McIntyre, the leader of the whale protection organization Project Jonah. With equal parts holistic ecology and New Age romanticism, Mind in the Waters decried the Cartesian worldview that denied feelings, imagination, and consciousness to other creatures. In McIntyre’s words: “It seems that in our craze to justify our exploitation of all non-human life forms we have stripped from them any attributes which could stay our hand.” Try, she urged her readers, “to imagine the imagination of a whale, or the awareness of a dolphin. That we cannot make these leaps of vision is because we are bound to a cultural view which denies their possibility.”13

The Mind in the Waters worldview was adopted in its entirety by Greenpeace, which subsequently became the world’s most high-profile anti-whaling organization.14,15 In less than a decade, Greenpeace’s combination of direct action, media stunts, and lobbying helped to radically alter the whaling debate. Suddenly, whales were not just another species of charismatic megafauna in need of protection; they came to symbolize all that was wrong with human environmental exploitation. The Mind in the Waters view, with its explicitly abolitionist stance, came to embody the anti-whaling identity of numerous democratic non-whaling nations.

Throughout the late 1970s, Greenpeace ran a series of high-profile anti-whaling campaigns, primarily against the Soviet Union. The favorable media coverage of these daredevil protests helped spread the anti-whaling sentiment. By 1982, after a series of complex political maneuvers, the anti-whaling forces had marshaled enough support to pass a moratorium against commercial whaling.16 Despite repeated efforts to overturn it, primarily led by the Japanese, the moratorium has survived. But it has not put a stop to whaling. The Japanese have used a loophole that allows for “scientific” whaling, and whalers can dispose of the by-product as they wish. In the Japanese case, the by-product mostly ends up at the Tokyo fish market. The Norwegians, on the other hand, simply left the IWC and continued commercial whaling, despite a lack of demand for the product both at home and abroad.17

The Only Realistic Solution

The moratorium was undoubtedly a stupendous political success for the anti-whaling movement and its supporters, and certain whale species have rebounded as a result. Nevertheless, nearly all remain far below their historic, pre-industrial whaling levels. Even the minke, which Japanese scientists argue has benefited from the decimation of larger baleen whales, is hardly in need of culling.18 However, despite its unexpected longevity, a moratorium, by definition, merely suspends whaling for an indefinite period. On several occasions the Japanese have come close to assembling enough votes to overturn it. Alternately, they could simply continue to use the scientific loophole, or even step out of the IWC altogether. At the same time, just as Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd are not about to stop their dogged pursuit of Japanese whalers, the anti-whaling sensibility is not going to disappear any time soon. So where does that leave us?

Clearly, the scientific conservation approach of the past is untenable in the current political and cultural climate. Resurgent humpback whales now swim beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge, while millions of American and European (and an increasing number of Japanese) whale-watching tourists continue to experience what, for many, is an almost spiritual thrill. Australian teenagers wear t-shirts declaring: “Save the Whales. Eat the Japanese.” The anti-whaling sensibility is not amenable to arguments about sustained yield and carrying capacity, no matter how solid and reputable the science. For example, it appears that certain species of whale, such as the minke, could be hunted sustainably without endangering the population, if hunts were artisanal and carefully managed; this evidence has made little headway with environmental organizations such as Greenpeace.19 And though toothed whales do, indeed, exhibit evidence of a highly complex intelligence, baleen whales appear to be more comparable to ungulates than primates.20 However, none of this is likely to make significant inroads into the anti-whaling sensibility. Politics, rather than science, seems destined to constitute the determinative discourse on whaling for the foreseeable future.

If this is true, then what is the most tenable solution beyond the holding pattern of the moratorium? If we take a utilitarian view—what approach would satisfy the greatest number of people while doing the least harm—then the answer seems obvious: a complete ban on commercial and scientific whaling. Of course this sort of brutal realpolitik would subject whalers to the tyranny of the majority, and some would even argue that it is thinly disguised cultural imperialism. But even if this is the case, what would be the net harm to the major whaling nations? For Japan, it would mean the loss of a few hundred jobs (many of which could easily be absorbed elsewhere) and the end of a particular way of life in a small number of coastal towns, as well as limiting the gustatory pleasure of the few who can afford choice cuts of whale meat. This would easily be offset by a massive boost to Japan’s global image. The country would also save money, since whaling has only remained viable as a result of government subsidies. Furthermore, whale-related tourism now far exceeds whaling as an economic activity. The same arguments, more or less, apply to wealthy Norway and (until recently) wealthy Iceland.21,22 And from an environmental perspective, there is no evidence to suggest that an end to commercial whaling will result in a “whale plague” or any sort of ecological imbalance.

The diplomatic keys to such a plan reside with the U.S. and China. The Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman’s Protection Act enables the U.S. to embargo all fish and wildlife products from any nation that “diminishes the effectiveness of an international fishery or wildlife conservation agreement.”3 Japan, Norway, and Iceland stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars worth of seafood exports if the amendment is invoked. As a new global economic power, China can also play a role. The Chinese government has supported the moratorium since its inception, a fact that can be explained, at least in part, by the irritation it causes Japan. A U.S.-China sponsored resolution to ban commercial whaling would be a relatively cheap way for both nations to improve their images among the community of nations, as well as providing a basis for a workable relationship for other international environmental issues such as climate change.

Clearly, the above is a rather crude sketch of a possible solution to the whaling dilemma. However, this crudeness is, to a certain extent, unavoidable due to the intractability of the problem. The anti-whaling sensibility is now deeply embedded in most Western democratic societies. It is part of a broader historical current that has shaped modern attitudes toward nature, and while it is not immutable, it is unlikely to be influenced by a small group of people whose main goal is to be able to continue killing the species of charismatic megafauna that sits atop the Western totem pole. Furthermore, if recent media reports are to be trusted, there is a possibility that Japan may end its subsidies to the whale fleet, thus rendering the operation unprofitable.23 Perhaps this is the right time for the few remaining whaling nations to cut their losses and take advantage of the benefits that come from membership in the anti-whaling community—not necessarily because their hearts are in it, but because on the whole, they stand to gain far more than they would lose.


Frank Zelko

Frank Zelko is a professor of environmental history at the University of Vermont. His research focuses on the history of environmental movements. He has published work on environmental activism in the...

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