Whales belong to the order Cetacea which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. The blue whale is the largest animal that ever have lived on our planet; it is larger than any of the dinosaurs was. A blue whale heart can weigh up to 600 kg and is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The tongue of an adult blue whale is approximately the same weight as an adult elephant. Unfortunately their large size does not protect them. There are many reasons contributing to the current endangered status of whales. For example, overfishing is making it difficult for whales and other marine animals to find sufficient food sources and leaving them to starve. Human activities like deep seabed mining and marine fracking, coastal and marine development (building constructions in the coastal areas) destroy the natural ecosystem whales live in. Many marine creatures and whales certainly not excluded are touched by the effects of climate change. Sea level rise and changes in sea temperature will leave whales vulnerable, maybe not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive. Crowded with pollution ranging from plastics to derelict fishing gear, the oceans have become a minefield for marine wildlife. Another problem threatening whale population is ocean noise pollution from such things as military sonar, seismic surveys and vessel traffic. But out of these contributing factors commercial whaling has had the largest impact on the current declining whale population.
In fact the hunting of whales has existed for hundreds or even thousands of years. But it had only little effect on the whale population and did not cause so huge ecological damage due to the undeveloped and limited technology. The rate at which whales were being killed considerably increased between the 17th and 20th centuries as sophisticated boats, technologies and hunting equipment evolved. Killing whales for oil became a very lucrative business and the competition on the market eventually led to the expansion of the whaling industry. Nearly 3,000,000 whales were wiped out in what may have been the largest cull of any animal in the history of mankind. For example, blue whales have been depleted by up to 90% of their pre-whaling population. Over 50,000 whales have been killed since the ban on commercial whaling came into force in 1986. Japan, Norway and Iceland kill 2,000 whales each year. Six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered. Scientists think that it takes around 20 years on average for a female whale to replace itself with one mature female offspring. If you are still not terrified of the slaughter of whales that is happening while we are watching and its ecological impacts, we should took a closer look at the crucial question in this isssue.
Why should we care about whales?
Why Slovaks, for example, as we live in inland country would ever care about some big marine creatures living thousands of miles away somewhere deep in the ocean? Of course we love animals. We keep pets, we establish dog shelters for the abandoned dogs, we have natural reserves and sanctuaries for the animals we know. But overwhelming majority of us would never have a chance to see a living breathing whale in our lifetime (Free Willy in TV does not count).
In fact whales are amazing and special beings. These marine mammals are at the top of the food chain and play a very important role in the health of the marine environment even though we do not realize that. They manage the flow of food by helping to maintain a constant food chain and the balance of the ecosystem. Whales guarantee that particular animal species do not overpopulate the ocean (when one species of sea animal that is important to the food chain passes away it allows other species to thrive). Scientific studies of the cetacean species provided us a lot of discoveries and advancements regarding echolocation, aquatic environments, marine life and marine mammal intelligence (whales dispose of a high level of intelligence and self recognition – a characteristic that is known in only a few animal species). Another aspect of the importance of whales is that whale watching has become a major source of income for some countries. Especially developing countries seek to increase their global importance and attract the interests of other countries by whales observer activities and tourist attractions.
Despite all these facts, the law protection of whales is insufficient.
Otherwise there would not be such a huge decline in their population, so many endangered spieces and numerous warnings from scientists about their extinction. Laws and regulations that are supposed to be protective are replete with systemic loopholes that value economic achievement over species preservation. Lack of regulation, lack of transparency and lax oversight are problems that need to be solved in order to rescue and protect the precious population of whales.
The main framework dealing with the whales protection is the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) that was signed in 1946 and it is the International Whaling Commission’s founding document (IWC). ICRW contains a provision that allows killing of whales for scientific purposes. But it was written more than 50 years ago, at a time when no alternative ways of scientific research existed. Now there are non-lethal methods that provide the data required for management much more efficiently and correctly. Nations like Japan use the above-mentioned loophole of scientific purpose for killing the whales for the economic gains. A whale is captured and justified that it is for research purposes. Then the meat is sold with the explanation that it is the best way to get rid of the whales corpse (it would be wasting to throw the meat away like a trash, right?). This is how commercial whaling works nowadays and even international law seems to be weak to fight against it.
Another document covering the protection of marine animals is United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources.. But the paragraphs dealing with the protections of the marine mammals are too general. UNCLOS does not even contain the word “whale“. It has been argued that potential uncertainty arises in relation to the second sentence of the final version of Article 65 which reads: “States shall co-operate with a view to the conservation of marine mammals and in the case of cetaceans shall in particular work through the appropriate international organizations for their conservation, management and study.” In the end, one organisation was established for the conservation of cetaceans – above-mentioned IWC. But the plural of the word “organization“ leaves open the additional possibility for a successor.
Obviously, current international laws and regulations protecting whales are not protecting them properly. On May 31, 2010, the Australian Government even lodged formal proceedings against Japan in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands. On March 31, 2014 the ICJ ruled that Japan’s whaling program was not for scientific purposes. The Court ordered that ”Japan revoke any extant authorization, permit or licence to kill, take or treat whales” and refrain from granting any further permits. Japanese officials confirmed their nation’s recognition of the ICJ decision. But despite this recognition, they disobeyed the judgement of the ICJ and launched new program of „so-called scientific“ whaling for the next season.
I may have a few ideas how to help protect whale species more effective. Enhancing legal protections, demanding effective application of laws, adoption of stronger protective regimes and generating greater public awareness may help to deal with this situation. There should be some penalty mechanisms as they work on the regional level (e.g. a fine or even a jail when bringing danger or death to an endangered animal). There are some organisations and groups trying to protect marine animals at any cost. One of them is Sea Shepherd Conservation Society whose mission is to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species. They use innovative direct-action tactics to investigate, document, and take action when necessary to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas. You may have heard of them from news, they really succeed in creating greater public awareness.
Human beings would not be able to survive without plants and animals. Especially species like whales need our protection. They can not be kept in some natural reserves like pandas in order to maintain their existence. In my opinion, not only coastal countries should bear the burden of protecting whales. They live in high seas which are the commmon heritage of manking stated by the international law.