The pursuit of Moby Dick, an albino sperm whale whose very whiteness evokes a nameless horror in the author, remains one of the remarkable pieces of English literature: Herman Melville's account of the great whale hunts of the 19th century, in the age of sail and of the modest power of a harpoon flung from a human arm, carries its allegorical power 150 years later.
What would the allegory be today, amidst the mechanised slaughter that was to be perfected in the 20th century? Since the 1900s, some species of whale have been extinguished altogether; others such as the great blue - the largest animal that has ever lived - reduced to a few hundred individuals, a tiny fraction of a per cent of their original numbers. As catches of the blue declined, whalers progressed through the other rorqual whales in order of decreasing size, ending with the minke whale, which at around nine metres long had previously been considered too small to be worth catching.
It was to remedy such appaling decline that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed. At its first meeting in 1949 it endorsed what was for the time a farsighted goal in recognising "the interest of the nations of the world in safeguarding for future generations the great natural resource represented by the whale stocks". But the ideal proved hard to realise. With big profits to be made, flagrant abuses of the quota system continued, with the Soviets as the biggest but by no means the only fraudsters.
By 1979 the IWC's Scientific Committee, a grouping of scientists from IWC member countries, had broadly agreed that the situation was out of control. "The degree of scientific uncertainty is so widespread", it noted, "and the problems... so completely unresolved that the only way to assure that stocks are not overexploited is through an [indefinite] moratorium [on commercial whaling]".
This was agreed in 1982. But some nations refused to co-operate. Norway filed formal objections, and continued commercial whaling. Japan pursued whaling under the guise of "scientific research" despite the fact that the information obtained was not required for management purposes: much of the "lethal research" takes place - at least officially - in the great southern ocean, an area that has been declared a sanctuary for all whales indefinitely. As a result, recorded whale kills have been on the increase in recent years.
The IWC's secretary-general Ray Gambell conceded this February that it was "lurching from crisis to crisis". But, he said, "there may be light at the end of the tunnel". An initiative from the Irish Commissioner to the 49th meeting of the Commission, which begins in Monaco next week, may be what Gambell has in mind. This will propose a global whale sanctuary outside of nations' exclusive economic zones (EEZs), a complete ban on international trade, a phase out of scientific whaling, and - most controversially - allowance of controlled coastal whaling for domestic consumption within EEZs.
The US and UK delegations, long among the strongest advocates of conservation, may give the Irish proposal a cautious welcome.
The US is under pressure from certain indigenous groups to allow small amounts of coastal whaling in their own waters. In Britain, where 88 per cent of the public are opposed to whaling in any form, the Government's attitude is equivocal. "[The Irish proposal] is a package of very positive measures... [but] there is no doubt that [it] causes some difficulty," Elliot Morely, a minister at the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, told The Independent. "What it [would] mean in practice, what safeguards and controls there [would] be... on current practices such as those of Norway... is something we must watch very carefully... Our concern is to limit what coastal whaling goes on and not to open a door to its increase."
Some conservationists see sinister forces at work behind the Irish initiative. Chris Stroud, campaigns director of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) thinks the Japanese and Norwegians, two of the richest countries in the world, are playing a long game.
He says that international acceptance of small coastal whaling would be a trojan horse, as poor countries (already the recipients of various "sweeteners" from the Japanese for their marine sectors) would be tempted to increase illegal operations, both for domestic consumption and the clandestine international market. He also sees the hand of an international "wise use" movement, which wants to prevent any animal species being prohibited from our exploitation.
That international black markets exist is not in doubt. Dr Scott Baker, senior lecturer in ecology and evolution at the University of Auckland, has conducted DNA "fingerprinting" of whale meat from Japanese and Korean markets which proves that Bryde's whale, humpback, killer whale and small cetaceans have been sold there pretty much continually throughout the 1990s.
Nevertheless, there are "far more important things to address", according to Mark Simmonds, head of special projects at WDCS. "The IWC may be making a mockery of what we presently know about the state of our planet by continuing to focus on so-called "safe" development of commercial whaling". Overriding priority, he says, should be given to environmental concerns.
The fate of whales is inextricably linked to that of their environment, and there the projections are of ubiquitous, increasing chemical pollution, and climate change. Though the IWC established an environmental working group in 1986, it is separate and subordinate to the Commission, whose political manoevrings anyway take precedence in deciding which questions scientists should even consider.
Like other aquatic top predators, whales and dolphins build up very high concentrations of persistent organic pollutants (organochlorines such as PCBs) in their bodies. In other animal species they can affect reproductive and immune systems, interfering with normal enzyme and antibody activities, in particular thyroid hormones and retinol (vitamin A).
Simmons suggests that the recent spate of mass mortality events in marine mammal populations worldwide could partly be caused by these. PCBs are transferred across the placenta to the foetus when the developing embryo is at its most vulnerable, and also concentrated in the mother's milk, which could make it directly life-threatening to calves in some species such as dolphins.
The IWC's limited research has focused on "exploitable" baleen whales, where contaminants are generally in lesser concentrations than in the toothed whales, and argued they are of no consequence. But baleens are great migrators and so must take long fasts. As they burn up fat they may become vulnerable even to smaller concentrations in their reserves.
Whales are also threatened by changing ocean circulation patterns, a likely consequence of man-made climate change, the movement or loss of nutrient-rich sea areas, and the removal of clues for migration as water bodies change physically and chemically. Unusual currents have already brought "krill-free" water to Antarctic waters: starving penguins are the most immediately apparent consequence. Simultaneously, plankton and other species in the key polar feeding grounds could be vulnerable to increased ultraviolet radiation caused by atmospheric ozone depletion; and ozone depletion peaks at the same time as plankton productivity, which highly migratory whales have evolved to exploit.
Recent research, ironically drawing on old whaling records, shows that the Antarctic summer sea ice edge has been moving southward year by year, suggesting an abrupt decline of some 25 per cent in 20 years after the Second World War. For whales in the southern ocean the results are stark. They tend to congregate near to the ice edge because as it retreats each spring dormant plankton are exposed, photosynthesis begins and a bloom of life follows. A smaller food-producing area could mean that these whales, which comprise around 80 per cent of those left, are never able to regain their population because there is not enough to eat.
Attempts to evaluate environmental threats to whales rapidly hits the limits of current knowledge. But research methods, including non-lethal investigation of the whales themselves, are improving all the time. A transformed IWC, utopian as it may sound, could play an invaluable role here. At Maff, Elliot Morely agrees that "there is a need to concentrate on environmental threats to whales" in a unique international forum such as the IWC. "We believe the IWC should move away from old tasks towards new things such as economic benefits of whale watching... and we're already trying to get the IWC to move in this direction". But will Norway, Korea and Japan follow even if the IWC leads?
Conservationist Sir Peter Scott observed "if we cannot save the largest animals in the world we have little chance of saving the biosphere itself and therefore of saving our own species".
Could this, then, be the horror that Melville was seeking to decry in the terrible passage towards the white whale: that our own action "stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation"?Reuse content