Philip Hoare: Brutality on the high seas

As the politics plays out, there is always one loser: the whale itself

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In proposals to be published this week and in a deal to be struck at the meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Morocco in June, the US is expected to declare its support for the resumption of commercial whaling for the first time in 25 years.

You might want to read that sentence again. Yes, it is as shocking as you first thought. But this drastic move comes as a desperate resolution to an appalling problem. Since 1987, the Japanese have conducted so-called "scientific research" into whaling. This fools nobody, and is a guise for the killing and consumption of more than 1,000 whales a year. But as a senior adviser at the IWC told me after the preliminary meeting in Florida last month, the Japanese government is determined to pursue its goal. And it consistently ups the ante by declaring new intentions to hunt humpbacks – perhaps the most beloved whales of any whale-watcher.

Like the Norwegians, who also still hunt whales, the Japanese argue that "harvesting" cetaceans is no different to our cull of sheep, pigs or cows. Yet unlike domesticated animals, you cannot kill a whale humanely. Even without taking into account the intelligence of whales, and the non-necessity of eating them, whaling is ultimately and ethically cruel.

The essential problem is that the IWC was founded to conserve, not preserve, whale stocks. Its moratorium is temporary and voluntary, and the Japanese could walk away from it at any point. It is this nightmare that the new proposals seek to address. They may be the only way any practical control can be exerted on the Japanese – by setting an annual quota restricted to their own waters, rather than the Southern Ocean. But I'm sure I will not be the only person to ask, how many more whales must die, that others might live?

As the politics plays out, there is always one loser: the whale itself. Two months ago, in his laboratory in Portland, Maine, Dr John Wise showed me the results of his work on sperm whales. Using genetic samples gathered from populations of these deep-diving cetaceans all around the world, Dr Wise has discovered unprecedented levels of chromium in sperm whales – the cause of it traceable back to human activity – to the extent that this contamination is probably inducing chromosomal damage analogous to Down's syndrome in people.

More whales are dying now from human effects than ever died from purposeful hunting. Climate change is forcing them to travel further in search of food, as are acidifying oceans. Anthropogenic noise, from shipping, seismic surveys and military sonar, disrupts their most delicate sense, that of hearing. Some 75 per cent of the world's most endangered whale population, the North Atlantic right whale, of which fewer than 450 remain, are hit by ships or entangled in fishing gear in Cape Cod Bay, barely miles from Boston.

As much as any resumption of whaling, we must address the fact that it is the actions of us all which threaten the existence of these beautiful creatures.

Philip Hoare's 'Leviathan or, The Whale' won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

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