It’s hard to find neutral information about whaling, it being a particularly emotive subject amongst environmentalists and an activity fiercely defended by countries in which it is still practised. I am going to write only about whaling in Norway. The situation in Japan, with their lethal samples for scientific research, itself often an attempt to veil commercial hunting expeditions, and unregulated and off-the-record pirate whaling ships, is easier to straight away put into the ‘bad whaling’ category.
I’ve always been very confused about what to think about whaling. My grandparents lived in Sandefjord, in Norway, a town which in the 19th and early 20th centuries was in important whaling port and home to many whalers, a heritage which is proudly remembered throughout the town with statues, and a whaling museum. There is a very popular restaurant in the harbour which serves whale steaks, which, I have to say, I have tried and are very good. The Norwegian government claims their hunting is based on scientific evidence concerning the sustainability of the Minke whale population and that in terms of impact on the species itself (Minke whales are the only species that are hunted in Norway), it is in no danger of becoming threatened. Yearly quotas and the number of whales killed fluctuates, in 2008 the quota was 885 but only 484 were killed, in 2003 the quota was 711 and 646 were killed (source).
My objections to the anti-whaling arguments heretofore have been based on a wariness of humans’ emotional attachment to whales based on their intelligence. The discrepancy in the way we apply this kind of hierarchy means that while we’re happy to put dogs in our handbags and beds, we allow vast numbers of pigs, which have a similar level of intelligence and sociability, to be treated in a way that causes the animals considerable stress and pain.
It is difficult to measure the amount of pain experienced in the slaughter of an animal. Harpoon technology is obviously now more advanced than the simple spears used by Norwegian fishermen in the 19th century. Harpoons are now equipped with explosives that detonate inside the whale’s body, which sounds exceptionally barbaric but is the result of extensive research into the most humane methods of dispatch. Sources claim that most whales die within two minutes of being hauled onboard, but when dealing with such a huge creature, in an unpredictable environment, there is, of course, a margin for error. In this article, it is claimed that volunteers for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society witnessed the traumatic and slow death of a whale that was inaccurately harpooned and took 25 minutes to die, thrashing around and emitting ‘screams’.
The question is how many of these botched deaths occur, a factor which is much harder to regulate and document than the number of whales brought to shore. As long as there is any question over the effectiveness of the methods used to kill whales, and as long as there are harrowing reports such as the one above, I will choose not to eat whale, because no living creature should be under threat of that kind of experience.