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The whalers' tale

Anglo-American breast-beating over whaling is a kind of cultural imperialism, say Rune Frøvik and Simon Ward of the High North Alliance

Since time immemorial man has caught fish and whales, but in the past three decades a rum situation has emerged. While fishing continues to enjoy almost universal acceptance as a means of food production, Western urban society has decided unilaterally to shut down whaling with complete disregard for any culture which still practises it.

Each culture has its own culinary idiosyncrasies. For many Asians dog meat is a delicacy, the French like their frogs, snails and horsemeat, and Australians are fast developing a taste for kangaroos. And there are just as many taboos. Indians forego the joy of beefsteak, Jews and Muslims won't touch pork, and those pickiest of people, the northern Norwegians, would not dream of eating eider duck.

Beset with environmental challenges and yet respectful of such cultural differences, the world community has embraced the principle of sustainable use as embodied in Agenda 21. We have agreed that the use of renewable natural resources is acceptable, provided rates of usage are within the resources' capacity for renewal.

Yet the West's cultural imperialists would have whales exempted from the sustainable use principle - an exemption that would, quite simply, place them above and apart from the animal kingdom to which they obviously belong.

For communities which live close to nature, particularly in regions where ecosystems contain limited numbers of species, those species that do exist often play vital roles, both nutritional and cultural, in people's lives. Inhabitants of the High North in Norway, for example, will continue to harvest what nature provides, be it seals, fish, birds...or whales. And in the interest of self-preservation, they will strive to do so sustainably. But the idea of placing a major species off-limits for human consumption is incomprehensible.

Harvesting and trading in marine resources are the lifeblood of communities in the High North. Life continues by taking life. For a Norwegian combined fishing and whaling vessel, typically 65 feet in length, this means passing the seasons catching saithe, herring, cod and minke whales.

After a five-year pause Norway resumed whaling in 1993, and this year has set a quota of 753 minke whales to be caught from two north Atlantic stocks estimated to total 184 000. The minke whale is the main species targeted by today's whalers, and numbers more than one million worldwide. The present catch of about 1300 a year constitutes less than 0.15 percent of that population and is sustainable by any standards.

And this is not just the view of the whaling nations. At the 1997 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a majority of members voted in favour of the resumption of international trade in north Atlantic minke whale products. In so doing they adjudged this harvest to be sound from an environmental standpoint. However, the two-thirds majority needed to effect change was not achieved.

Meanwhile, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) maintains its ban on whaling, despite the advice of its scientific committee that limited harvests could be conducted sustainably. The IWC is dominated behind the scenes by the protest industry and governments of the Anglo-Saxon tribe: the USA, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The anti-whaling lobby is fighting tooth and nail to ensure the whaling ban is never lifted, regardless of the status of stocks. And with no conservationist arguments left to support their position, they now resort to tenuous ethical arguments for exempting whales from any consumptive use.

Given that CITES today has 145 member states - more than three times those of the IWC - the Anglo-Saxons' arrogant claim to represent world opinion is now demonstrably false. The CITES vote in 1997 sent a clear message to the IWC that most countries prefer science-based decisions to those based on emotions.

In a world where trade has become dependent on the exchange of money, there are also commercial aspects to whalers' lives. In Greenland, Japan and Norway whale meat is sold in supermarkets, in Russia it has been sold to feed fur-bearers, and in Alaska baleen handicrafts from bowheads are sold to tourists. Until such time as electronics stores accept sides of whale bacon as currency, whalers will have to acquire their televisions the same way as the rest of us - with cash.

The decimation of several great whale stocks by pelagic factory ships was a sharp lesson in the dangers of capitalism run amok. But coastal whaling as practised by local communities, even when it involves cash and (heaven forbid!) profit, is a very different beast that in the long term has shown itself to be sustainable and environmentally sound. The fact that whaling is now the most closely scrutinised marine fishery in the world is a further guarantee to sceptics that the mistakes of industrial whaling will never be repeated.

To ensure that the oceans continue to serve as one of our most important food reservoirs, there are many problems which must be addressed, notably over-fishing, wasted by-catches and pollution. But these must be addressed by improving our management in accordance with agreed principles, not by launching destructive attacks on those who engage in exactly what we are striving for - sustainable use - because our cultural bias finds a particular harvest unpalatable.

True environmentalists are concerned not with appearances but with practising the principles that they preach. In so doing, they have either reached the conclusion, or are getting there, that whaling should not only be continued but could even be increased to provide more people with a healthy and nutritious source of protein in a way that is much more environment-friendly than eating beef or pork.

High North Alliance is an umbrella organisation representing whalers, sealers and fishermen from Canada, Greenland, the Faroes, Iceland and Norway, as well as a number of local communities. The organisation is committed to working for the future of coastal cultures and the sustainable use of marine resources. For more information see www.highnorth.no

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999

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