Shinzo Abe is making enemies again. This time, rather than stoke regional territorial and nationalist tensions, the Japanese Prime Minister has angered neighbors by continuing his country’s controversial whaling policy.
Abe has confirmed that Japan will again embark on a whaling season for ‘scientific research’, a euphemism if ever there was one. Despite a ban on the Antarctic hunt by the International Court of Justice, Abe insists Japan will persist.
Japan is not alone in continuing what is, in effect, commercial whaling. Norway and Iceland refused to comply to a 1986 moratorium imposed by the International Whaling Commission (Japan ironically signed it) and continue hunting whales for meat despite regular environmental protests.
Abe argues that whaling is part of Japanese culture and the 1986 moratorium made provisions for traditional/indigenous whale quotas, for example among the Alaska Inupiat. Yet such cultural claims must also take into account the modern necessity for whaling and its industrial nature.
The BBC has just aired the first of a two-part documentary on the modern whaling industry, focusing on the activities of Leith Harbor, a giant whaling complex on the British overseas territory of South Georgia. The sheer volume of whales caught in Antarctic waters in the first half of the twentieth century is staggering, as is the manner in which their giant carcasses were processed.
In 1870, Svend Foyn pioneered a type of explosive harpoon which was both effective in killing a whale quickly and at securing it above the surface so that the body could be retrieved. Whilst experiments with explosive weaponry on whaleboats had been conducted as early as the mid-18th century, Foyn’s design firmly tipped the balance in favour of humans.
Prior to this point, whaling had been a far more dangerous and, arguably, noble contest between man and leviathan. Launching themselves on small harpoon boats from their main ship, whalers would pursue their prey in man-powered craft, armed only with wooden-handled harpoons, riding the fiercest of seas. Many men died when either the whales, or the ocean, capsized their boats.
The danger of such an enterprise was offset both by the potential profit (both for company and individual) and the sheer thrill of the hunt. No more is the excitement and obsession incumbent in the whaling industry more evident than Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where the duel between Captain Ahab and the white whale is one evenly matched.
One also thinks of the traditional ballad, Greenland Whale Fisheries. Reflecting on a failed whale hunt that drowned five sailors, the narrator laments:
The losing of those five jolly men grieved the captain awful sore
but the losing of that fine whalefish, now that grieved him ten times more
Of course this commercial and personal obsession with whaling was driven by global demand in the 18th and 19th centuries; whale oil was used for lighting lamps before the advent of electricity, whale bones were employed to support fashionable corsets and the meat fed starving populations.
By the time of the great industrialised whaling of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the demand for whale products had decreased, along with the number of whales in the sea. This demand has now been reduced further, with only the indigenous populations of the Arctic Circle really able to claim that they rely on the whale for survival.
The decline in the population of the world’s whales is an undoubted tragedy, such is the magnificence of the creatures. Without any great justification to keep pursuing them, Abe is unlikely to find much support for his latest proclamations.
The the great whaling era is over and we should be grateful that we stopped when we did. At least now there is the potential for the populations to rebound and reclaim the seas that they dominated before the harpoons first stuck fast into their shiny, blubbery sides.