12 November 2018

Cultural Identity or Political Expediency…

I was thumbing through the broadsheets a couple of Sunday’s ago and there it was, staring me in the face…Japan To Hunt Humpbacks – First time for over 40 years. Lacking any political guile my nine-year-old daughter asked. “Why do some countries still kill whales Dad and isn’t Boomerang a humpback?” Answering with rationality I did not feel I explained that it was deeply engrained in the cultural identity of some aboriginal people who currently kill whales and dolphins for food. During the last 200 years I explained, many countries killed the great whales largely for oil to light lamps in an age before electricity. This resulted in once vast whale stocks being reduced, in some cases like the humpback, to near extinction. Warming to my subject I relayed the story of Boomerang, a lone humpback whale who has these past few years, made an appearance off West Cork during the late summer months and entertained visitors with a stunning array of acrobatics. Tail lobbing and waving, fin slapping and breaches high out of the water. With no sightings from the boat during 2006 concerns for the animals safety were allayed when Boomerang, so called because he kept coming back, was spotted off the Waterford coast during this last summer.

As Charlotte’s eyes narrowed in concentration my mind drifted back to a small village called Hvalba on the Faroe Islands. During the early 1980’s I was on the southern island of Suduroy, talking to a group of Faroese teenagers about the local dolphin hunts, the grindadráp. I was torn between the tragic sight of dismembered, disembowled pilot whales lying in great slicks of their own blood and entrails whilst admiring the tenacity of these hardy and attractive people existing on these desolate North Atlantic islands. In the past, whale and dolphin meat was the difference between life and death to islanders during the long winter months. By the 1980’s much of the previous years meat was being discarded or fed to dogs come the Spring. The current years “harvest”, as they euphamistically called the slaughter, was consigned to cold storage and eaten infrequently, yet still the annual killing went on. As beer was ordered I asked, why in a society with freezers, fridges and frozen fish fingers do you still hunt the pilot whale and Atlantic white sided dolphin if it is not essential to your survival. After a second of what I perceived to be mild discomfort, a girl preparing to depart the islands to study economics in Copenhagen annouced that it was “not about what we need but about who we are” “Cultural identity” I said, trying to understand but with images still fresh in my mind of a video showing a Norwegian whaler firing a high powered rifle repeatedly into the eye of a still living minke whale as it thrashed at the side of his boat, a harpoon embedded deeply in it’s flank.

Nearly 30 years later as I munched thoughtfully on my nut crunchy, sugar coated, convenience breakfast cereal I pondered how little things had changed. Following the heady days soon after 1986 when a long overdue moratorium on commercial whaling was put in place by the International Whaling Commission, most IWC members and environmental activists unwillingly accepted that politically expedient caveat – “scientific” whaling. This permitted the killing of certain species of whale for so called research purposes, but not on the industrial scale of previous years. A caveat that to this day sees the meat obtained from whales killed for scientific research being sold on the open market in Iceland and Japan.

My two boys started squabbling over who was going to rebuild a Meccano toy that lay in pieces on the floor being chewed by the dogs… This reminded me of the arguments, recriminations and insults that were slung back and forth at the annual IWC meetings throughout the 1990’s about quotas – how many animals would be killed in the name of science? Previous whaling nations, whose burgeoning whale watching industries expanding at double figure rates annually, were beginning to demonstrate a sustainable method of exploiting whale populations commercially. An industry in its adolescence in Ireland but which may expand if we ensure the proper conservation initiatives are put in place to protect those species that visit Irish coastal waters. This demonstrated very clearly that people wanted to watch whales and dolphins in their natural environment and whale watching would bring much needed revenues and jobs to coastal communities. Above all you could watch the same whale many times but you could kill it only once. Whilst Iceland and Japan continued to take whales under the guise of scientific whaling, it was inconceivable that we would see a return to commercial whaling and the type of free-for-all exploitation that reduced many great whale species to population levels where they were threatened with extinction. Some species, like the Northern right whale have never recovered and may become functionally extinct within a decade or two as current world population numbers flounder at around 300 animals.

Much campaigner sweat and whale blood has passed under the bridge in the twenty years since the moratorium was put in place. Such were the machinations of the governments of Japan, Iceland and Norway which included buying pro-whaling votes within the IWC and unilaterally restarting commercial whaling, there was very real concern that these major whaling nations might achieve the three quarters majority in favour of commercial whaling needed to overturn the 20 year old moratorium. To date they have failed but with recent assistance from Denmark, who cast the deciding vote, they managed to table and get accepted, the widely discredited notion that whales were responsible for the decline in fish stocks around the world!

Frustrated by their inability to get their minority way Japan announced an increase in their minke whale kill under the guise of scientific whaling. Together with Norway and Iceland they will target over 2000 minke whales during the 2007/2008. More insidious is the move by Japan to flout the Convention for the Prevention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). As we breath their whaling ships head south to the southern ocean and their stated intention is to kill the endangered and charismatic humpback whale and the still threatened fin whale – the very same species that have been entertaining visitors and locals alike these past weeks lunge feeding off Toe Head.

The boys had rebuilt their Meccano toy and were eyeing me intently. Mindful of their attention span I abandoned all hope of a balanced argument and concluded. Pressure exerted by minority interest groups often cause governments to make decisions that will help to keep them in power. “You mean whales have to die because of pointless political posturing not cultural indemnity,” my daughter observed. Identity…I corrected.



  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post, love the anology of your boys and the IWC delagates et al!


  2. Adan Gimenez says:

    Excellent Nic! Fantastic post.

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