The debate over whaling continues to roil international waters. Whaling has largely been banned for almost 25 years but the moratorium is riddled with loopholes and contradictions. In the Science Forum we talk with marine scientist Stephen Palumbi about those contradictions, and some the ethical issues surrounding the whaling debate. (flickr image: glintle)
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MARCO WERMAN: Now Stephen Palumbi, you’re a Marine Biologist at Stanford University and you study whale populations around the world. Do you think the current system with a moratorium on commercial whaling is broken?
STEPHEN PALUMBI: I do think the current moratorium has got all those loopholes that we heard about a few minutes ago. There’s scientific whaling, as we talked about, but there’s also aboriginal whaling and there’s also a little known kind of whaling called accidental whaling, where a whale is caught accidentally in fishing gear allowed to be sold into the meat market. With all those loopholes and with all those complex negotiations around them, it’s very difficult to know that whale populations are going to be protected now and very difficult to say that this current proposal is going to protect them into the future.
WERMAN: But even if there are those loopholes, even if it is broken, it sounds like the moratorium has helped at least some whale species. Many have rebounded, haven’t they?
PALUMBI: There is no question that the moratorium has been a major international event, and somewhat of a success story. The whale populations around the world have been increasing as a result of it. It’s difficult to know, though, whether that increase is going to continue with global climate change cutting into the food supply of a lot of whales.
WERMAN: Now the proposal by the IWC that we just heard about has several elements to it. But at its heart is the idea that it would legalize commercial whaling by some countries, although at a very limited scale. Some critics say it would open the door to rampant hunting because it would be difficult to enforce. Do you share that concern?
PALUMBI: I do share that concern and the other problem of course is that the registered hunting is just a small part of the issue. And so unless the agreement can actually take into account the fact that many whales are now under stronger threat because of smuggling and climate change, then the agreement will not, in fact, be a good things for whale populations around the world.
WERMAN: Now with this IWC meeting in Morocco this month, how much will the representatives there be looking into the future and taking into account global warming and its effect on whale food supplies?
PALUMBI: Well Marco, I don’t know how much they’ll take that into account, but a lot of whales get their food out of the arctic pantries of the ocean. They swim up there during the Arctic and Antarctic summers, they do their feeding solely there. And those are the environments of the world that are changing the most quickly because of climate change. Fish stocks are changing in density, krill populations are varying, the grey whale eats a small crustacean that lives on the bottom and those animals are having to forage further and further and further to find that food. Swimming now not only into the Bering Sea, but up north, north of Siberia and Alaska. So these whales are basically traveling the world looking for their food in a world where the oceans are changing dramatically. It’s very difficult to know that their populations, the whales’ populations are going to be able to grow in the next decade they way they were able to grow in the eighties and the nineties after the moratorium.
WERMAN: So let’s go from the scientific to the ethical. Americans generally have no problem with the idea of regulated fishing, but the idea of whaling, any whaling, strikes many as cruel and just plain wrong. What is you position? Would you support whaling of any kind for any reason?
PALUMBI: My personal position is that I don’t find whale meat to be particularly attractive and I don’t find whaling to be a particularly great thing to do. On the other hand, I also think that it’s very dangerous and not appropriate for the United States to impose a cultural restriction on people around the world. The ethical issues about it are on one side of the table, as a marine population biologist, what I’ve really tried to approach the things is to say under what circumstances can whales be sustainably hunted? Under what circumstances can they be protected around the world? What are the kinds of ways that new technology can be applied to actually control the whaling that the rest of the world decides ethically is in its best interest?
WERMAN: Professor Stephen Palumbi, we’ll have to leave it there, but the conversation will continue online. You’re our guest in The World Science Forum this week. Listeners can bring their own questions and comments to you about the science, politics and ethics of whaling. For listeners to join the discussion, just go to the world dot org slash science. Dr. Stephen Palumbi, a marine biologist at Stanford University joined us from Monterey, California. Thank you very much.
PALUMBI: Thank you Marco.
WERMAN: News headlines are coming up here on PRI.
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