“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”
Leo Tolstoy, 1897.
While the Icelanders were killing blue, fin and sei whales through the unregulated post-WWII decades, Denmark was reporting large kills, at about half of Iceland’s rate, in the same period: mostly fins and sei but also the occasional blue whale. These were actually being taken in Denmark’s colony of the Faroe Islands. All the large whales around there were soon obliterated and Faoroes whaling ended with a whimper in 1968. This illustrated the dismal history of most North Atlantic ‘modern whaling’, exemplified best by Norway, and also in, for example Shetland, the Hebrides and even Labrador. The Norwegian entrepreneurs had enormous success from land stations in the early years of the twentieth century; the local stocks were quickly exterminated and bit by bit the Norwegians moved south. By the time of WWII some stocks had evidently begun to increase or regroup, and after the war several oldland-stations were re-opened, and new ones constructed in a number of places to take advantage of the ‘recovering’ whales. They were soon closed again – except in Iceland.
While Christian Loftsson’s crews were ‘harvesting’ blue whales the pelagic whalers in the IWC were plotting to abolish the Baleen whale Sanctuary that the negotiators in 1938 (Article II of the 1938 Protocol to the 1937 Principle Whaling Agreement) and 1946 had thoughtfully designated in the Eastern Pacific sector of the Antarctic. This was an important objective for Japan from the moment it first attended the IWC in 1951. Its antagonism was perhaps understandable: Japan had not been involved in either the 1938 or 1946 negotiations, and this Pacific sector was the most easily accessible part of the Antarctic to Japanese factories; the Europeans all entered the Antarctic by way of the Atlantic, and the Soviets, at that time with only one factory, via the Black Sea, Mediterranean, Suez, Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
It had been mooted at the Cape Town meeting, in 1951, that it would be a good idea to regulate Antarctic catches by regions, mainly to reduce destructive competitions between the pelagic whaling nations. The Netherlands made the outrageous suggestion that at least it would be nice to distinguish between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres – that was one of the only sensible things said by that delegation through those sad years.
In 1952 a proposal was made to open The Sanctuary for pelagic whaling – just for a year, it was said. It was argued that this would take some whaling pressure off the beleaguered baleen whales feeding elsewhere in the Antarctic. This was considered necessary because the Commission still refused to reduce the grossly high overall Blue Whale Unit (BWU) catch limit, notwithstanding pleas by the scientists, along with their calls for limits to be set by species. South Africa said that The Sanctuary had only been designated because no whaling took place there. Others thought it was because there few whales there. The Scientific Sub-Committee was told to look into this and also to consider what to do about the declining blue whales. As a side-show Canada proposed to ban all whaling – including sperm whaling – in the Northeast Pacific, I presume as part of its strategy - shared with the USA - to keep the Japanese out of that region for fisheries (salmon and halibut) reasons; this was effectively a sanctuary proposal but not formally put forward as such and was politely ignored.
Nothing happened about The Sanctuary in 1953; everyone was too occupied with the impending fate of the blue whales. The Scientific Sub-Committee recommended in 1954 (at the sixth IWC meeting, held in Tokyo in recognition of Japan’s resurgence) that the blue whale be protected in the Antarctic and the BWU limit be reduced from 16,009 to 15,000 BWU but the latter did not fly even though all the fleets had only managed to catch 15,300 in the 1953/54 season – it was said the weather had been bad, the legal open season too short. Of course we did not know at the time that the one USSR factory ship was paying no attention at all to any of the IWC rules. In Moscow, in 1955, however The Sanctuary was reopened to pelagic whaling The two British factories, of Christian Salvesen, went there at the opening of the 1955/56 season and reaped their biggest bonanza ever. In Moscow a reduction of the Antarctic catch limit to 14,500 was proposed. voted upon, and lost. But the vote revealed yet another split among the pelagic whaling nations: Norway and USSR in favour, Japan, UK, South Africa, Panama and Netherlands against. The UK said “The position of the whaling industry should be fully taken into account and balanced with scientific requests as far as possible”. The Netherlands was more explicit: “An expensive whaling expedition cannot be operated economically if not enough whales may be caught in a given season.” Yes, indeed!
The Sanctuary was never again closed to baleen whaling. The British success confirmed the area’s potential importance especially to the Japanese operators and, eventually, to the expanded Soviet fleet operating out of Vladivostok. At the 1959 IWC meeting, under strong pressure from Japan, it was decided to extend the opening of The Sanctuary for another three years; in 1962 Japan finally got its way and The Sanctuary was abolished. Whale sanctuaries were not discussed again internationally until 1978 when IUCN decided to organize a workshop on the subject.
Next madness. In 1949, at the very first IWC meeting Norway had come up with a better idea for saving whales than designating sanctuaries or reducing catch limits. As it was inconvenient to reduce the BWU limit its Commissioner proposed that the killing of humpback whales be re-authorised in the Antarctic. Humpback hunting had been thoughtfully prohibited as a feature of the 1946 convention negotiations, because it was clearly, at the time, the most threatened of all species except those few that were already protected, such as the right whales Norway now proposed that a special species quota be set for humpbacks in order, it said, to take the whaling pressure a bit off the blues and fins. The UK and the USSR thought this was a great idea. Australia didn’t and South Africa was doubtful: “The object of the Convention is conservation”; both of them caught humpbacks at their temperate zone land stations and presumably thought the ‘relaxation’, as it was called, would diminish their own catches. The vote was 7:2 (Australia and – surprisingly - The Netherlands against, and the agreed quota was 1250 for the 1949/50 and 1950/51 seasons.. South Africa voted in favour, because it was already, since 1946/47, engaged in Antarctic pelagic whaling; its expedition killed, in 1949/50, 54 humpbacks as well as 451 blue whales.(down from 1185 in 1946/47. The total reported pelagic catch of humpbacks in 1959/50 was 2117 (70% over quota) and that didn’t even include the great number the USSR expedition did not report – it officially reported only 36 that year and zero in 1950/51. Big joke! The legalized pelagic hunting of humpbacks was not revoked and did not cease again until 1963, by which time a further 13,000 had been officially killed.
There is of course much more destructive madness to write about but these are some of the early games most people have forgotten about, if they ever knew. The farce continues in its various acts.