Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Mass Sacrifice of Whales to the God Mammon

Dr. Sidney Holt is ASOC's representative at meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and has decades of IWC experience. The following guest blog by Dr. Holt, gives background on the true depth of the destruction caused by commercial whaling.


Originally I thought to write about the Great Massacre of whales in the Antarctic, from about 1910 to the mid-1970s. But that word seems now to be used mainly for instances in which numbers of humans are deliberately killed and mutilated, rather than for sustained killings that are aimed at exterminating entire populations. The original Greek word was descriptive of the killing of non-humans so I thought it reasonable to rescue the word from its typical use as the mass killing of Jews, Communists, Russian prisoners of war and other dissenters in the expanding Empire of Nazi Germany. The Ancient Greek holocausts were dedicated to a variety of pagan Gods, the Nazi effort to The Final Solution, the onslaught on the whales was carried out in homage to the God Mammon.



The holocaust of the Great Whales perpetrated in Antarctic waters - mainly by Norwegian and British entrepreneurs, with a little help at various times from Japanese, German, Russian and Ukrainian, Dutch, Argentinian, American (USA), South African and a few other assorted nationalities – involved the death of about two million animals. With an average body weight of about fifty tons, that’s a total of one hundred million tons of whale flesh. Depending on how it is counted the Nazi Holocaust killed between ten and twenty million humans, averaging about 50kgs each ‘per head’ as the whalers say, so let’s say a bit less than one million tons of human biomass. It has intrigued me to realize that in both cases a good part of the biomass was turned into soap.

Commercial whaling has always been connected with war and other violence. British whaling in the Antarctic before World War I provided much of the glycerin (a byproduct from the manufacture of soap from animal fats) from which nitro-glycerin was manufactured for bombs and shells. After that war, when the Norwegians planned to sell some of their whale oil to Germany the British threatened to throttle Norwegian industry by cutting off its coal supply. Japan sent dual-purpose whale factories to the Antarctic in the late 1930s to produce oil to sell to Germany (thus beating a UK-French blockade in support of the League of Nations)  to earn convertible Reich Marks with which to purchase fuel oil in San Francisco for it military machine. ‘Double purpose’ because the tanker-factories carried whale oil one way and fuel oil the other.

About the same time Germany began large-scale factory-ship whaling in the Antarctic, with another military purpose: to implement the slogan ‘Guns, not butter’ through the production of large quantities of margarine by a process invented by German chemists and applied on a massive scale by the Rotterdam-based Dutch company margarine Union Ltd, which conveniently merged in 1930 with the British soap manufacturer Lever Brothers to form the giant multinational Unilever. Before that Lever Brothers had established a branch in South Africa, with a factory conveniently next door to the whaling station in Durban.

After World War II the authorities of the UK and Norway conspired vigorously to prevent companies from other nations from engaging in factory-ship whaling in the Antarctic. They succeeded in stymieing the ambitions of Argentina and Italy, and almost fixed Germany except for a sneaky loophole called Olympic Challenger, registered in Panama and Honduras but in reality a German-American operation. The block to Germany’s resumption of whaling, despite the efforts by the Chambers of Commerce of the Hanseatic cities, was achieve by virtue of the UK’s position as the occupier of the Baltic zone of the country.

What little is now left of the once huge whaling industry is a continuing source of international conflict, focused on the effective monopoly Japan has acquired in the Antarctic.

The cruelties of the Holocaust and the Great Whale holocaust are in a way parallel, both involving a sequence of mental cruelty followed by physical cruelty. The great Italian actor and director, Roberto Benigni, reminded us poignantly in his wonderful 1997 film ‘La Vita √® Bella’ (Life is Beautiful) of the former cruelties but also how humans can sometimes survive them. The deliberate mental cruelties to whales come from the screams of special sonar oscillators, derived from war-time ASDIC, that frighten the whales and make them swim madly until they are exhausted; its purpose, it is said, is to shorten the chase time. The physical cruelty in whaling is, as is well-known, the frequent slow death from one, two, or sometimes even three, harpoon heads exploding inside the body and, in the case of ‘scientific whaling’, Japanese-style, holding the harpooned but still-living whale by its fluke (tail), head under water, until it suffocates. Greenpeace film graphically depicts that appalling process; whales, whose breathing is entirely voluntary, under brain control, do not drown, like us, by taking water unwillingly into their lungs but they suffocate by holding their breath.

Governments of whaling countries, and most of their scientists, like to think in terms of numbers of whales killed or to be killed. Whalers naturally think in terms of product yield and value – weight and money. The first regulations for catches in the Antarctic were both – a formulaic mixture of numbers of whales and expectd oil production from them: the Blue Whale Unit. (BWU). When the IWC finally decided – oh! how reluctantly – to discard the BWU. Dr K.R. Alan, one of the Committee of Three Scientists (aka Three Wise Men, working for the Government of Australia) wrote  – with the help of the other two Wise men, Prof Douglas Chapman and me – the text that became an IWC Resolution in 1974 and the New Management Procedure in 1975. He/We proposed that the prime object of restoration and management should be the maximum average weights of the catches from each whale species population.  Few of the other scientists involved liked this much, they were used to thinking only about numbers (just as the whalers were said to be addicted to BWUs) and that is how the catch statistics had always been compiled. The whalers and their Commissioners didn’t like that at all, for a much more substantial reason. This was that its adoption in the NMP would lead to more stocks being classed as Protection Stocks with zero catch limits, and to their having to wait longer for depleted stocks to recover sufficiently to justify non-zero limits. This is because maximizing catch in weight involves letting whales live a little longer and grow a bit more. Maximising yield in weight, some time in the future, was written into the 1974 Resolution (a document that the new Secretary, Dr Ray Gambell, and the then Chairman of the Commission, forgot to publish) but omitted from the 1975 Schedule Amendment, languished and eventually died, except in my head.

In the 1970s I decided to re-calculate all the catch data published annually since early in the twentieth century by the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics (BIWS) that the Norwegian whaling industry maintained for the benefit of the industry and the IWC. Numbers could be roughly turned into body weights using studies carried out by a British biologist, Dr Christine Lockyer, and published by FAO after they had been presented to the big scientific conference on ‘Mammals in the Seas’ organized by FAO and UNEP in Bergen, Norway in 1976. The lengths of nearly all the whales killed had been measured and recorded, the ages of samples of some of them had been estimated and the weights of (numerically) small samples had been determined by scientists working on factory ships and at some land-stations. Dr Lockyer’s work allowed me to convert the numbers and the length-distributions of catches into total weights.

Incidentally, the length measures had a strange history. When, in the 1960s, we - the Three Wise Men - were doing our job of evaluating the states of the Antarctic whale stocks and recommending possible sustainable yields from them, we noticed something strange in the length data. There were far too many whales listed as just over the relevant minimum size limit, and too few just under that. It was obvious that the national inspectors on the whaling ships and platforms were using what we called ‘shrinking measuring tapes’. No gunner could be sure that his aim was at a whale just a foot over the limit rather than just under it. They were paid on the basis of their legal catches and penalized for illegal ones  The inspectors were the same nationality as, and ship-mates of, the whaling crews, and in many cases were ex-whalers themselves. Later of course we found that the statistical cheating was enormously greater than suggested by these length discrepancies, with especially the Soviet and Japanese whalers caught-out falsifying catch numbers and even species identifications. On a massive scale. One interesting feature of the length distributions was that the cheating was on an increasing scale as the availability of whales declined. That was a feature of every IWC meeting for decades: BIWS would announce that the average length of each species catch was less than in the preceding year. The same bias appears in the Japanese statistics of both the numbers and the sizes of blue and fin whales killed, arising not only from the ‘shrinking tape-measures’ but also from a practice by skippers and gunners of catcher-boats, out of sight of the mother-ship – killing more than the quota they had been given, pumping air in to keep th carcasses afloat, then at the end of the day sinking all the smaller individuals and towing back to the factory only the big ones.

I’ll write more about this business, that ‘Size Matters’, in my next contribution. Here let me concentrate on the size of the industry and related matters. When I re-calculated the catch statistics one thing became immediately obvious: the Antarctic baleen whaling industry had been by far the world’s biggest ‘fishery’, both by weight of catch and its market value, and had remained in that position for many years, despite being in reality an extractive, ‘mining’ industry. The biggest fin-fish industry, that for anchovies off the coast of Peru - also for practical purposes at the time an extractive industry - peaked, before collapse, at more than ten million tons in one year, but the value of the fish-meal it yielded was much less than the annual production of baleen whale meat and oil.

When baleen whales feed in the Antarctic for a few summer months, on krill and some copepods (and, I suspect, also on ‘sea butterflies’ - minute floating ‘pelagic’ snails - they put on 50% or more – up to 100%, some say – of their body weight. That is why the whalers, once they were released from competing with each other for a share of the overall catch limits - internecine strife ––they preferred to kill whales late in the season – not too late, of course, because the whales begin their northward migration before the summer’s end and different species, sexes and age-classes, time that exodus differently. That weight increase gives them the energy they need to get to the tropical and sub-tropical breeding grounds, the females to deliver and begin nursing their calves, and to make the long trek back to the southern feeding grounds.

So, before the Great Whale Holocaust, when there were a quarter of a million blue whales, half a million fin whales and perhaps half a million humpback, sei and Bryde’s whales, taking part in the Great Migration, roughly 30 or more million tons of nutrients, mostly contained in oil but some in muscle protein, were moved by the southern baleen whales from the polar to the temperate, sub-tropical and tropical zones. Much of the carbon would be expelled to the atmosphere in ‘blows’ as carbon dioxide but some would stay in the sea with the other nutrients. I think this must have been by far the biggest biologically-mediated south-north shift of ocean nutrients, supplementing physical transport by the great ocean currents. In addition, the carcasses of most of the baleen whales (except the right whales) that died naturally during their journeys sank to the sea-bed where they provided for extraordinary deep-sea scavenging species – especially worms and arthropods, ranging from crabs to tiny amphipods, as well as some specialized fishes - many of which we now know are unique to whale carcasses. What a splendid process is biological evolution!

I must return to the holocaust idea. I fear some readers will be offended by my putting the slaughter of the whales in the same class as that of humans in the Holocaust. But I have a purpose, not merely to shock. There are still those who want to continue these Final Solution-style ‘operations’. As far as eliminating aberrant or undesirable humans are concerned the desire is with others, not Germans - who learned a very hard lesson – nor the Japanese who suffered at the other end of the infamous Axis, and the name is now not so much Final Solution as ethnic cleansing. As for the baleen whales of the Southern Hemisphere the name is now ‘Sustainable use’ and neither the British nor even the Norwegians are now involved. As the British Home Secretary weakly said as youths trashed London and other English cities in recent nights “Such behaviour is totally unacceptable”. 

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