Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Battles over Whaling Heat Up

Once again, we're seeing confrontation over Japan's scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary. As Sea Shepherd continues to harass the Japanese fleet, Japan is asking countries to prohibit the group's ship, the Steve Irwin, from refueling. This year, Sea Shepherd is the only group pursuing the Japanese fleet on the ocean. Greenpeace has also sailed to the Southern Ocean to try to interfere with the whale hunt in the past but according to the New York Times, finds Sea Shepherd's tactics, which include throwing butyric acid, "too confrontational." Japan also accuses the Steve Irwin of ramming one of its ships, which Sea Shepherd denies.

In the midst of all this, the New York Times' Dot Earth blogger asks if there are any similarities between whales and bison. Bison, after all, were nearly wiped out by American colonists but their populations are on the rebound because bison meat is enjoying a surge in popularity. Buffalo is leaner than beef, with lower levels of cholesterol and higher levels of iron, yet considered by many to be better tasting. So if whale species could also rebound, could they become like bison? Japan often claims that there are plenty of minke whales and that hunting them will not threaten the species. Other considerations aside, it's not really accurate to compare bison and whales. While buffalo aren't really domesticated in the sense that beef cattle are, they are herded and controlled, allowing farmers to monitor their herd size. There's no such thing as whale farming. A buffalo farmer knows exactly how many buffalo he has and how many calves are born every year. Whalers do not have information that accurate or complete and never will. Simply put, farmed animal populations tend to get bigger over time as farmers carefully balance the need to make a profit and the need to replenish the population. The opposite seems to be true for non-farmed animals that are valued as a food source. No one owns them, so no one has any long-term incentive in their survival- hence the collapse of the whaling industry and numerous fisheries.

So, to answer Andrew C. Revkin's question, no, commercial whaling could never be like commercial bison farming. Subsistence whaling practiced by indigenous people might have been sustainable, but commercial whaling never will be.

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