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Head of a North Atlantic right whale in the water.

Whales Get Their Mururoa Moment

Australia’s action in the world court against Japanese whaling masks emerging threats to cetaceans in our own waters.


Set into the floor of the grand vestibule of Sydney's Mitchell Library is a colourful terrazzo map of 17th century Australia. The "Tasman Map", as it's known, is thought to be based on the cartography of Franz Jabobszoon Visscher, chief steersman to the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. And its iconography — two water-spouting mammals fixed in stone beneath a mosaic canopy of a navigator's ideal starry sky — suggests that in the mid-1600s the southern oceans were filled with gambolling humpback whales.

Scientists estimate that Australia's coastal humpback numbers once stood at 35,000 to 40,000, until Aussie whalers hunted the creature to near extinction by the 1960s. So complete is our recent transformation from predator to protector, it is mostly forgotten that Byron Bay, where youths and old salts now surf with dolphins, was once a whale abattoir. The burning of oil of lavender buds and orange skin has not long replaced the boiling of blubber and oil of whale nose.

The annual whale migration was once a call to man the harpoons; now most of us — a new generation of 'whalers' —gawp from cliff-tops and dream of gamboling with Migaloo, the iceberg-white humpback. And such dreams are big business; direct expenditure on whale-watching excursions has more than doubled over the past decade, building an industry worth roughly AUD200 million a year in Australia alone.

This transformation in Australia's relationship with whales is summed up by Visscher's direct descendent, Australian ship's master Timothy Visscher, who manages some of the support vessels that repair and service oil and gas platforms off Australia's northwest coast. He says he's been surprised by the policies being increasingly enforced by major oil companies to protect reefs and whales against harm. Currently engaged on the Gorgon gas project off Barrow Island, he says that preservation of marine fauna and flora sits alongside safety of operations in order of importance. "If a whale enters a work zone, we're required to shut down and move well clear of the whale's path," he notes.

Australia's conversion from whaler to watcher reflects not just a society increasingly concerned by animal welfare, but the seminal nature of whale science itself. The study of whales today is akin to that of primate studies in the mid-20th century, with what little we know suggesting that whales are a vital component in the life-cycle of the oceans. At the forefront of efforts to protect and manage worldwide whale populations, Australia has faced stiff opposition from governments like Norway and Japan. Even so, our burgeoning offshore oil and gas industry, and the vitality of our coal-shipping industry, is producing a raft of new challenges that will put Australia's young love of whales to the test.

AS JAPAN HAS LEARNED, there's nothing so righteous as a reformed whaler. Japan's assertion of its right to hunt whales, in what is the International Whaling Commission (IWC)-agreed Southern Ocean Sanctuary, is increasingly at odds with Australia's growing affection for the annual whale migrations that hug our shores. This month, as South Korea backs away from its threat to join the ranks of commercial whaling nations, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague is expected to announce a new show-down hearing date for the Australia vs. Japan stoush over whale hunts.

The last time Australia went to the world court was in 1973, in the effort to prevent France's nuclear testing on Mururoa Atoll. Similarly, Australia considers whale killing a pollution of our backyard, and its prevention as vital for an emerging whale-watching industry and elemental to the health of the seas. It's also viewed as an important assertion of national interests in the "global commons", that murky area of shared and undelineated (except by treaty) universal ownership that extends across the oceans and skies, and into the astrosphere.

<p>Elding Whale Watch/IFAW</p>

Elding Whale Watch/IFAW

A Humpback Whale breaches in Iceland, 2009

According to Don Rothwell, an expert on the Law of the Seas at the Australian National University, and one of the principal thinkers behind Australia's recourse to the ICJ, the case will turn on whether the ICJ judges choose to examine some of the scientific arguments that buttress the Japanese claim that their killing of around 850 whales each year is for "scientific purposes".

Given our current mindset, it may come as a surprise that the intention of the 1946 International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was not to protect whales, but to preserve the species in accordance with human demand. Like all law, however, the ICRW has been transformed by implementation and social change.

For millennia, the ocean surface was a mirror to human ignorance: a third of light is lost just one centimetre below the surface. And we still barely understand what goes on within Sydney Harbour let alone what happens once you step off the contintental shelf.

Although the oceanic version of the sound barrier was first broken by William Beebe — who plunged to light-extinguishing depths in a diving bell in 1934 — it was the marketing of the aqualung by the inventor Jacques Cousteau in the same year of the ICRW agreement that truly heralded the beginning of a new great age of ocean exploration. That new age is still in its infancy, a fact which our knowledge of whales illustrates perfectly: despite their mega-fauna charismatic presence, our understanding of them remains, relatively, plankton-sized.

Commercial whale-watching reputedly began in 1955 when a sun-struck San Diego fisherman called Chuck Chamberlain lit on a novel idea for an easier living, but it wasn't until 1967, when the American zoologist Roger Payne recorded the "exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound" of a submarine choir of male humpback whales, that popular interest and the anti-whaling movement really took off.

In 1986, the IWC suspended commercial whaling, with exemptions granted only for 'scientific' purposes, or for indigenous communities that traditionally relied on a harpoon-harvested diet. But these two out-clauses, drafted in "wording without limitation" language, means that signatories are legally entitled to issue licenses for scientific culls that mean, in theory, that a country could take an entire species in a season. With stocks of 6,000 tonnes of whale meat sitting in Japanese warehouses, Australia regards Japan's yearly kill as the self-evidently bad faith use of the ICRW's provisions.

<p>IFAW</p>

IFAW

Minke whales waiting to be flensed on the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru during a whale hunt in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.

In 2010, unable to stop Japan from its seasonal slaughter of the the world's least known mammals, the Rudd government initiated a case in the Hague to acquire the international version of an AVO against Japan on behalf of the Southern Ocean whales. Australia insists that, in harvesting the whale, Japan is breaching numerous of its international treaty obligations.

In the meantime, whale watching has blossomed from a few tens of thousands of boat-borne gawpers, into a USD2.1-billion global industry, with more than 13 million people taking to boats, according to the last report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

BEYOND NATIONAL INTERESTS, love of animals, and the monetised valuation of whales, cetacean scientists have been discovering other reasons to protest the killing of these creatures. A 2003 study by Alaskan marine scientists for example, argued that the collapse of the Aleutian Island marine ecosystem was a direct result of the Japanese and Russian slaughter of half a million bowhead, sperm and humpback whales from the 1940s until the 1970s. When a whale carcass settles on the ocean floor, it provides food to a huge variety of fish, mollusks, and worms; it's like a reef of fertilizer drip-feeding the ocean's food chain from the bottom up for as long as 60 years. Take that regular supply away, and…?

There are also serious arguments afoot that whales effectively sequester carbon by consuming mega-tonnes of krill that feed on the phytoplanktons that absorb carbon. And, as if that weren't enough, whale faeces apparently contain 10 million times the proportion of iron in Antarctic seawater; and iron is vital to the production of phytoplankton in the first place.

In addition, science is itself killing the culling-for-scientific-purposes argument, by refining its methods of investigation. According to Darren Kindleysides, director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, new tagging technology and DNA sampling makes the Japanese reason for whaling "an anachronism".

"Whale science is barely a generation old," says Philip Hoare, author of the acclaimed 2008 book about whales, Leviathan. "These are clearly sentient and intelligent creatures, and yet we understand so little about them, not even their longevity." In 2007, the scientific community was surprised when fragments from a 19th century harpoon extracted from the carcass of a bowhead whale, proved that the victim was at least 130 years old, making it the longest living mammal, with scientists positing that some bowheads live up to 200 years.

<p>IFAW</p>

IFAW

Since whale song was first recorded, scientists have been studying how whales communicate. They have now identified five different clans of sperm whales in the Pacific, each of which uses distinct but separate patterns of 'clicks' that have been called dialects.

Other characteristics of whale behaviour have also been described in human terms. When a mother dives up to three kilometres in search of food, her calf is often looked after by other unrelated whales, in what Hoare calls "a cetacean crèche" — a trait we've labelled altruistic. The scientist Hal Whitehead, of Dalhousie University, adds that groups of whales bond for life in matriarch-led units. Whitehead has gone so far as to suggest that whales exhibit signs of moral appreciation.

But there are limits to what we can know. "In some ways the effort to understand whale culture is analogous to the attempt to conceptualise Aboriginal culture by a two-dimensional society concerned with mortgage payments," says Hoare. "Yet whales live in three dimensions, and occupy 70 per cent of the earth's surface." He says that Moby Dick, written 161 years ago, remains the best book on whales (quite apart from its place in the Pantheon of American literature) because the imaginative gymnastics applied by Herman Melville to the whale universe continues to best illustrate the poverty of our understanding. "The culture and brain of the whale is a vast mystery and something really hard to get at scientifically," Whitehead says.

Gazing into the glassy surface that obscures the world of the whale, the early commercial whalers who inspired Moby Dick understood that while the hunt was dangerous, it was also profitable. Since American fleets began large-scale commercial whaling in the early 18th century, western society had used whales for meat, for umbrellas, for soaps, for decorative trinkets, for manufacturing perfume, and for fertiliser. But, above all, humans were hooked on whale-oil: it produced the finest candles, lubricated the engines of the industrial revolution, and lathered the soft pink cheeks of baby bottoms and society queens. The qualities of one particular kind of whale oil — that stored by whales in their noses — is so peculiar and resistant to freezing that it was smeared all over American nuclear subs to protect them when they had to dive under arctic ice-shelves. The substance has since been retained for its proper use — facilitating sonar communications between individual whales (these great bellows are so loud that scientists first mistook them for the creaking of the ocean bed).

WE MIGHT FEEL REVULSION at the devastation our former addiction wrought on these prehistoric creatures, but it is possible to have a sustainable whale industry. According to the most recent study, Australia's humpback population has clawed its way back from a few hundred in the mid-1960's to 15,000 or so, a population expected to double every seven years. The Japanese are right when they argue that, technically, their take of 850 minke whales is sustainable, and equally right when they take umbrage at the US for allowing the take of small numbers of the truly threatened bowhead species (albeit in tiny and closely monitored numbers) by Inuit.

Indeed, these days the more insidious and far greater threats come from pollution and climate change; from military sonar and seismic surveys; and from the sheer racket that human industry has loosed upon the sea in the form of shipping and resources exploration. And just as scientists have discovered that underwater volcanic vents are some of the most productive marine environments, lo! miners have discovered that these warm spots are also prospective sources of precious metals.

In fact, although Australia is a world leader in whale conservation, responsible for the protection of five of the 81 cetacean species, we are fast becoming world leaders in possible threats to those same populations. For ironically, while the advent of a carbon-extraction industry took the pressure off whales to provide us with oil, the massive increase in shipping activity because of coal exports to China, and the huge expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration licenses (see map) means that whales in Australia are now threatened by a reinvigorated carbon extraction industry. Matt Collis, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) notes that "two of the three places where blue whales feed, like Bonney Upwell off South Australia, have been targeted by the carbon industry for exploration."

Larger than a Boeing 737, the blue whale has been killed in horrendous numbers — an estimated 340,000 were butchered in the 20th century — so that today only a few thousand survive in the Antarctic (the Soviet Union clocked up a further 11,000 kills after hunt bans were introduced in the 1960s). And now this north-west region of the globe, alive with cetacean species, has become a mosh-pit of offshore drilling.

Just how the global carbon-extraction industry, acutely aware of the menace to profit posed by spills and other impacts, manages the balance between extraction and conservation is critical to the future of Australian extraction.

Organisations such as IFAW argue that the Federal Government's Marine Bioregional Planning and network of protected marine parks is not expansive enough to account for the intricate web of mutually supportive environments necessary for the effective protection of whales.

For the time being, the numbers of some whale species are still rising. Ship's Master Visscher concurs with the statistics, saying he has noticed a pleasing proliferation of whales over the past decade. "You'd have to be heartless to kill a whale. It's unforgivable," says Visscher, expressing a view increasingly popular, around the Pacific Ocean at least.

In Japan, too, where whale was served in school lunches into the 1970s, there are signs that things are changing. According to the executive director of Greenpeace Japan, Junichi Sato, the exposure of a wasteful and expensively subsidised whale industry that perpetuates "a hunt that brings embarrassment and shame to Japan" — and is far less profitable than the USD22-million Japanese whale-watching industry — means that the days of the Japanese whale hunt are numbered.

The next phase of the Australian action in the ICJ will come too late to halt the 2012/13 bloodletting season in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. If it fails — and there is an even chance it might — it will almost certainly introduce even more strident confrontations between Japanese whaling ships and the Sea Shepherd environmental activists. Last season, these anti-whalers managed to force a four-fifths reduction in the Japanese take, risking their lives to do so.

Shepherd "terrorists" (as Japanese officials have called them) will battle to protect the whales, which surely says something about the altruism inherent in human nature, even as we glimpse the possible existence of the same in cetaceans.

"Whales are the canaries of the ocean," says Philip Hoare, "the measure of all that is healthy, and all that is sick on earth."

Sydney readers can visit the Deep Oceans exhibition now on show at the Australian Museum.

3 comments on this story
by Tom

A small correction: whale meat in Japanese school lunches didn't stop in the 1970s; it continues to this day. I teach in the Japanese public school system, so I've seen it first hand.

July 24, 2012 @ 6:38pm
by Mickey

The system in place seems sustainable, so why are we so hell bent on stopping it ? Pursuing it seems like an an incredible waste of resources from our Government, the very thing that led to whale depletion in the first place, a misuse of resources. Why not pour all of the resources wasted on this activity into stopping something that actually is endangering a species on the very brink of extinction. Sea Shepherd aren't valiant crusaders helping the Planet, their a bunch of glory seekers tugging on the heart strings of those bereft of critical thinking. Why is it we rate the life of a whale above that of a cow ? Why is it we slaughter foxes by the 1000 and applaud that desecration of life ? Kill an animal to save another another animal, who are we to make that decision ? Sure, they're introduced but then so is the Possum (from South American millions of years ago) / Dingo (more recently) , time being the only difference. Why is it we're trying to fight nature at every step. We will never beat nature and yet we continue to fight her on every front.

and yes, I have been right beside a humpback and looked into it's eye

http://trevors.smugmug.com/2008/08Whale-Watching-Fishing-Trip/DSC3233/635311858_3DfFG-L.jpg

similarly a cow. I expect many that support "saving the whale" have done neither, and don't see the hypocrisy of their decision at the meat at the end of their fork.

July 26, 2012 @ 1:32pm
by Phil Ryan

Is this article about whales or a thinly disguised propaganda piece for the fossil fuel industry?

Is it just me or have you been getting very pro-mining lately?

July 28, 2012 @ 2:36pm
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