Blubber and bone

Wally Franklin is a marine scientist with the conservation organisation The Oceania Project and a PhD candidate at Southern Cross University.

The speedy and safe return to Australian shores of the three anti-whaling activists, Geoffrey Owen Tuxworth, Simon Peterffy and Glen Pendlebury, who boarded the Japanese whaling fleet security vessel Shonan Maru No 2 in Australian waters early in January, may be a clear indication that both the Japanese and the Australia governments are at last feeling the political heat on the whaling issue.

Sea Shepherd conducted their first campaign to Antarctica, 'Operation Leviathan,' during the 2006-2007 season. The annual and unacceptably dangerous farce of Sea Shepherd ships, funded by public and private donations, harassing the illegal Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Oceans Antarctic Whale Sanctuary has been allowed to drift on unresolved for six consecutive seasons. It's a miracle, and considerable credit to Captain Paul Watson's conduct of the campaigns, that no life has been lost on either side of the conflict. However as reports from Antarctica today show the stakes are ramping up, with increasing reports of injury to the activists and Japanese whalers involved.

It is sincerely hoped that it will not take the loss of a life to provide the catalyst to focus the political will that can bring this absurd tragedy to an end. There can be no doubt that Australia, the United States, Great Britain and New Zealand have the backing of civil society and can bring whaling to an end. But they need to act and act quickly. The word 'tragedy', of course, refers to the real victims in this process: the whales.

Since 700AD some men have relentlessly and mercilessly hunted the great whales in all oceans of the world. Not for food, as the Japanese would have us believe, but for oil and bones which provided over 100 commercial and domestic products to ply in the newly emerging economic markets. It began with the Basque peoples around the Bay of Biscay. Between 700AD and up until the late 1500s the Basques operated an international whaling industry in Europe, America and the Arctic. Joined by the Dutch and British it took only about 100 years to decimate the slow moving populations of Atlantic Right Whales and Bowhead Whales in the north Atlantic and the Arctic oceans.

In the early 1600s the Mayflower took whaling to the Massachusetts coast in the USA giving birth to the Yankee Whalers. It took the Yankee Whalers, together with whalers from other countries, including Australia, only 300 years to whale-out the slow moving whales throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. With the advent of the modern technological age using large factory ships and fast harpoon vessels (the model still employed by the Japanese whalers in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary) the great whales of Antarctica - Blue, Fin, Sei and Brydes whales, together with the remnants of the Sperms, Humpbacks and Southern Right Whales - were taken to the brink of extinction. Curiously the Japanese were not involved is this period of modern whaling.

After the Second World War the industrial whalers were forced to take stock of their actions, as they were running out of whales and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946. Its purpose was, and regrettably still is, 'to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry'. By the 1970s awareness of the terrible impact the whalers had had on the great whales motivated the newly emerging 'environmental' organisations such as Greenpeace (Paul Watson was a founding member) to become involved on behalf of an increasingly aware public. This led to the declaration of the 'Moratorium on Commercial Whaling' at the first global environment conference in Stockholm in 1972, the passing of the 'Moratorium' resolution at the IWC in 1982 and its implementation in 1986.

It was at this point in time Japan decided to use an outmoded provision in the IWC Charter and issue itself 'scientific permits' as a means of continuing commercial whaling. At the same time Japan set about gaining control of the IWC through a block of 'friendly votes', obtained over 18 years from 25 small countries in return for investment in their fisheries infrastructure. This brings us to the unfolding tragedy in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary.

Japan's apparently blind pursuit of its commercial whaling policy is an important and complicated story. You can read more about in 'Why think of whales at Christmas' at: www.songlinesofthe whale_migration.htm

The key message here is that Japan stands alone on a political limb over commercial whaling, which is all too slowly being sawed through by public opinion and an awful reality in Antarctica. It's time for all governments represented at the IWC to act and bring this unseemly mess to an end and allow the IWC to get on with the important work of protecting and preserving the surviving members of the World's Great Whale species.

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