Just last month, sitting in a small, low-lying fishing boat in pristine Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, I came face-to-face with a 30-ton gray whale—one of the most magnificent creatures on Earth. These pristine waters, off the coast of Baja California, are one of the last remaining gray whale nurseries. It’s a magical place. Seeing a whale here, in its element, spyhopping, breaching, and tail-slapping, is witnessing Nature at its most grand—huge, powerful, essential. When you see how impossibly big these animals are (their newborns are 12 feet long!), how completely they dominate a landscape, it’s hard to imagine that so many whale species are hanging on by a thread. It’s hard to imagine a world without whales.
Yet scores of whale species are in grave danger because of human actions: the industrialization of coastlines that threatens their nursing grounds; deafening, even fatal, undersea noise from sonar, seismic exploration, and ships; harmful fishing gear that wounds and strangles; garbage, oil spills, and toxic waste in the water, and, the most direct insult of all—hunting whales for profit. Despite an international ban on commercial whaling, thousands of whales are killed every year and sold for their meat. This week, beleaguered whales scored a much-needed reprieve: Japan called off its annual Antarctic whale hunt.
Japan’s decision—prompted by an international court ruling--is an enormous victory for whales. Commercial whaling has been outlawed since 1986, but Japan has continued its program under the guise of “scientific research,” killing about a thousand minke, fin, sperm and other whales each year. Japan even hunted whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, designated by the International Whaling Commission in 1994.
Japan’s claim that its whale hunting was scientific has been roundly disputed by citizens’ groups, conservationists, scientists and other nations. For decades, Japan sold whale meat procured through its “research,” even turning it into pet food, as demand for whale meat has dramatically declined in recent years – yet its scientific output was minimal. Earlier this week, the UN International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic was illegal. By calling off its Southern Ocean whale hunt this season, Japan has at last done the right thing.
This week’s announcement marks the first time in more than a century that whales will get a reprieve from hunting in the Southern Ocean. Many great whales were nearly hunted to extinction in the last century and are only beginning a tentative recovery. Relieving the pressure of the Japanese hunt will –we hope--help them bounce back.
NRDC is working on many fronts to protect whales worldwide, from naval sonar, ship traffic, harmful fishing practices, oil and gas exploration and industrialization of their habitat. Just yesterday, after five years of work by NRDC and our partners, the International Maritime Organization passed guidelines to reduce underwater noise from commercial ships. Ending commercial whaling is also a critical part of this fight. We believe that commercial whaling has no place in the 21st century. Japan, Norway and Iceland are the only countries still in the whale-hunting business. Japan continues to hunt whales in the North Pacific, under the guise of science. Norway hunts more than 1,000 whales each year under a special exclusion from the ban; and Iceland has been conducting rogue whale hunts in defiance of the ban, even targeting endangered fin whales.
President Obama recently introduced diplomatic sanctions against Iceland. Sanctions, together with Japan’s decision to call off part of its program, could signal that time is running out for the whale-hunting business. Now is the time to speak up and call for an end to commercial whaling worldwide.
[Photos: Gray whales in Laguna San Ignacio, © NRDC)