Skip to main content

Whales win one: Will Japan abide by ban?

By Carl Safina
updated 5:10 PM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
A crew member mans the harpoon on a Japanese whaling vessel in the Antarctic in 1993. Japan has gotten around the international ban on whaling by saying it's conducting "scientific research," but the U.N. International Court of Justice banned the practice, ruling that the "scientific research" rationale is a smokescreen for commercial whaling. A crew member mans the harpoon on a Japanese whaling vessel in the Antarctic in 1993. Japan has gotten around the international ban on whaling by saying it's conducting "scientific research," but the U.N. International Court of Justice banned the practice, ruling that the "scientific research" rationale is a smokescreen for commercial whaling.
HIDE CAPTION
U.N. to Japan: Stop whale hunting
U.N. to Japan: Stop whale hunting
U.N. to Japan: Stop whale hunting
U.N. to Japan: Stop whale hunting
U.N. to Japan: Stop whale hunting
U.N. to Japan: Stop whale hunting
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • World Court ruled Japan's "scientific" whale-hunting was baloney and it must stop
  • Carl Safina: Japan ducks ban on whaling with "research' excuse: Court agrees it's for meat
  • Safina: Using cannon and bombs, whaling empties oceans once teeming with whales
  • He says arguing whaling is Japanese culture is no excuse: It's New England culture too

Editor's note: Carl Safina is an award-winning scientist and author, founding president of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, and host of the PBS television series "Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- On Monday the World Court in the Hague ruled that Japan's "scientific" whale-hunting was baloney. It ordered Japan to revoke its "scientific research" permits to all its ships, effectively tying Japan's fleet to the dock and silencing the cannons and exploding bombs that are the way whales die nowadays.

Japan says it will abide. I wish it would take this opportunity to bow gracefully out of something so dishonest and unfit for modernity. But I expect a fragile truce, and only a partial one.

That's because Japan has a history of creatively bending the rules beyond the breaking point of international intent. Authorities and whalers seem committed to killing whales first and finding a rationale second, and it would be no surprise if the program were tweaked in some meaningless way so they could excuse continued hunting. Or they might say the court's ruling applies only in Antarctic waters and not the Pacific, where they also hunt. Or they might simply ignore the ban like their suppliers Norway and Iceland.

Carl Safina
Carl Safina

Come with me to three faraway places and you might see why I feel deeply and strongly about whales.

During the week it takes us to circle the ice-crowned sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, we see exactly two large whales -- and two now-defunct whaling stations. In 1904, the Norwegian whaler C.F. Larsen arrived right here and wrote with astonishment, "I see them in hundreds and thousands."

During the next 60 years, whalers killed about 2 million whales in the Southern Hemisphere, including about 360,000 blue whales, 200,000 humpbacks, almost 400,000 sperm whales, and a staggering 750,000 fin whales. Many of those whales should still be alive. That's why we haven't seen more whales.

Down along the Antarctic Peninsula on a penguin-research expedition, we find that the beach at King George Island is strewn with bigger-than-dinosaur bones of great whales, cast off after the whales were stripped of flesh. A whale vertebrae the size of a hassock makes a good seat for jotting a few notes. Then, like children making up a game, we'll try to walk a couple hundred yards on the bones of whales killed by human beings, without stepping on the sand. It's quite do-able.

One skull -- a blue whale -- measures 12 feet across, eye to eye. Lengthwise, from tip-of-jaw to back-of-skull, we pace it out at 27 boot-lengths. The jawbone is so big around that it comes up past our knees. We look at each other, then glance seaward, knowing that the now-silent bay should be spouting whales.

Sea Shepherd films whaling vessel
Three anti-whaling activists detained

Next to the far north. In the Arctic's Svalbard islands north of Norway, we have come to observe the accelerated melting of glaciers, and we find abandoned whalers' shacks and more whale bones on the beach. These bowheads, killed by the tens of thousands, barely cling to existence in the Atlantic.

In 1993, two stone harpoon points were found inside an Alaskan bowhead. It had been harpooned by 19th century hunters still living in the Stone Age. Industrial-age Eskimos finally got it. In chemical analyses of Alaskan bowheads, the oldest whale was deemed 211 years old at its death. It had been gliding through icy seas when Thomas Jefferson was president.

What Herman Melville in Moby-Dick called "so remorseless a havoc" still resonates in the wide silences of polar seas. Most large whale populations remain depressed.

There's no humane way to kill a whale. And at roughly 10 times the price of chicken, no people will starve if they don't eat whale meat. An elderly Inupiat woman once offered me a few pieces of bowhead blubber after inviting me into her home. It really warmed me, and was surprisingly bland-tasting. But the whale needed it more than I did.

Australia and New Zealand had argued that Japan was abusing a loophole allowing lethal scientific research within the worldwide commercial whaling ban. (Norway and Iceland ignore the ban). Japan has been killing protected species and hunting in an internationally declared Antarctic whale sanctuary.

The international agreement banning commercial whaling allows whale killing "for the purposes of scientific research." The court found that Japan was doing "research," but that the whole program was commercial whaling wrapped in a research shroud.

In 2012, Japan's Fisheries Agency director explained that minke (rhymes with "kinky") whale meat is, "prized because it is said to have a very good flavor and aroma when eaten as sashimi and the like." He added that, "the scientific whaling program ... was necessary to achieve a stable supply of minke whale meat." In other words, the program is not "for the purpose" of scientific research. The court busted Japan on that.

As for the quality of the research, the court noted with understatement, "Japan points to only two peer-reviewed papers... since 2005 and has involved the killing of about 3,600 minke whales, (thus) the scientific output to date appears limited."

At my university, a science professor who published two papers would be terminated by year six.

Basically, the court affirmed what was always obvious: Japan's research was bogus. (Part of the research is "to determine pregnancy rates" by seeing if they're pregnant at the time of death.) And although it's for commercial purposes, it loses money and is publicly subsidized.

Japan compares killing whales with Westerners killing cows. Nice try, but Japan's own laws on killing cows require swift and humane killing. It would be illegal in Japan to kill cows the way they kill whales.

Sure, whaling is part of Japanese culture: It's part of New England culture too. Yesterday's culture. There are plenty of old-style harpoons on the walls of Yankee restaurants. That's a good place for them. It's time for Japan to update its strange commitment to cruel and useless whale killing. Much of the world is more interested in whales than ever. We've just gotten beyond killing, into real research, and gained better appreciation and understanding.

So I am happy with the ruling that will at least hit the pause button on Japan's incomprehensibly outmoded whale hunts. Japan embraces Western influences ranging from baseball to jazz, business suits, trains, and tobacco. Suzuki makes Samurai cars that harken to an older culture, not samurai swords that cling to it. It's time for Japan to come into the 21st century and hang up the whaling. For good.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT