Andy Revkin of the New York Times has a story about Iceland’s plan to kill whales this year.
He sent an email to me and to several other people who’ve devoted considerable time to thinking about whales, whaling, and the humane treatment of animals, posing the question, “Is it just plain ‘wrong’ to kill whales?”
Here’s my response. Look for others on his blog in the responses section.
Is it wrong to kill whales? Because some say it’s wrong and some say it’s right, I start with the assumption that it’s inherently neither wrong nor right. The question is: what should we do? And the answer to that comes from what we want, how we want to steer ourselves, and what kind of people we want to be.
Except for people who think the world cannot be depleted because it is miraculously re-stocked or that it is being depleted because it is supposed to end soon, it is universally agreed that we want to use many things in the world, but not exterminate or deplete what we use. No one seriously wants to use everything we could use; many people would draw the line at eating various creatures or other humans (though there are always exceptions).
So regardless of whether I like whaling or not, the question of should we kill whales becomes, by wider agreement, one of, ‘Can we kill whales sustainably?’
In theory, we could. But part of the answer comes from the performance of whaling itself. First, all hunted whale populations were depleted, some exterminated. Atlantic Gray Whales were completely wiped out. Several species remain near the brink of the blink; others are recovering. So there is a history of excess. Second, in modern industrial whaling, whaling boats’ log books were often falsified, sometimes reporting one-tenth of the whales killed. So there’s a history of dishonesty, and a willingness to break rules. Many whale-meat packages sold as food in Japan have been proven by DNA testing to be species other than the one advertised. Often, the meat actually comes from supposedly protected species in supposedly closed waters. As I said, dishonesty appears to be inherent in this business. Third, the world has a critical need to bring the oceans under the rule of law and to democratize decision-making, because boats working out of boundaries have depleted fish, turtles, sharks, and formerly seabirds, whales, and seals. The international commissions set up to govern fishing and whaling activities on the world’s oceans are part of where civilization needs to go. Japan works against this civilizing process by threatening economic sanctions against countries inclined to vote differently, refusing to abide by agreed-to fishing quotas (they’ve been twice convicted in the World Court of systematic, government-sanctioned fishing well over their quota for bluefin tuna) and undermining the democratic intent of the International Whaling Commission by stacking the deck-paying for and bringing in member countries like Mongolia and many impoverished Caribbean states whose sole interest in whaling is to vote with Japan and get paid for it.
So can we kill whales sustainably? Apparently not. Then should we kill whales? No.