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July 09, 2013 | By:  Sara Mynott
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Why Whaling? Why Save The Whale?

The future of Japanese whaling is currently under heavy discussion in the International Court of Justice. Arguments and counterarguments for whaling have been much discussed in the scientific literature, policy realm and in the media, and in the coming months a final decision will be made on the future of whaling in Japan.

Arguments in favour of the practice include traditional subsistence whaling (a case made for countries such as Canada and Greenland) and whaling for scientific research (the primary case made for whaling in Japan). While subsistence hunting is a sustainable practice, the degree to which scientific whaling is necessary is hotly debated, particularly as there are many ways to conduct non-lethal scientific research on whales.

Whales known for their intelligence and while this is something we are still working to understand, it also plays into the debate surrounding whether or not they should be killed for research purposes. Research on intelligent animals is strictly regulated in many countries, even when it is non-lethal. Given that the measure of cetacean intelligence ranges between that of a primate and close to that of a human, the case for lethal research methods is questionable.

Arguments against whaling are perhaps more intuitive: many whale populations, such as those of the sei and fin whale, are under threat from human activities and we want to conserve them. Why though? Everybody loves a whale, but what do they add to the ecosystem and what value are they to us?

Beyond the moral obligation that, as we are responsible for much of the decline in different whale populations, we should also be responsible for bringing whale numbers back up to a healthy level, where is the incentive? For starters, whales play an important role in ocean ecosystems:


Whales have an important role to play in nutrient cycling. Their poo, for example, makes organic carbon more accessible to smaller organisms. Even a dead whale carcass is important in carbon cycling, particularly the export of carbon to the deep sea. The falling carcass (whale fall) brings carbon acquired at the surface (usually in the form of plankton) to the sea floor as the whale's body (a large carbon reservoir) sinks. The larger the whale, the more carbon-filled tissues it has, meaning that larger whales export more carbon. Whaling has reduced the size of whale populations and the size of whales. It has been estimated that bringing whale populations back to their natural level will mean 1.6 x 105 tonnes of carbon could be exported to the deep sea through whale falls - that works out at over 36 double decker busses worth of carbon per day! This is important in the context of global climate change as this export of carbon to the sediment means it can no longer interact with the atmosphere.

As it falls to the sea floor, a whale carcass can provide food for hundreds of organisms as they flock to a food source that can keep them going in an environment usually devoid of such bountiful food resources. Here, scavengers such as hagfish sleeper sharks and many invertebrates chomp their way at the whale's soft tissue, removing 40-60 kg of it per day.

Deep sea worms and crustaceans also feast on the whale carcass, until only the bones remain - the feasting is not over yet though, as this fuels a host of bone-munching microbes that break down the remains of the whale.

The Economy

Okay, so whales are an integral part of marine ecosystems, but do whales have another value to us? Take a look to the Scottish Isles, or Canada's western coast for the answer to this one. Whale watching tourism is a lucrative business and while it's hard to put a value on a species, or on marine biodiversity, it has been estimated that it could generate 413 million US dollars in marine tourism annually. With much of Japan's whaling being located far from it's coast, tourism presents an unlikely alternative to the income from selling whale meat here, but many other whaling nations practice much closer to home, making marine tourism attractive, sustainable and economically viable.

There are disadvantages to whale watching too, as approaching whales and other marine mammals too closely can disrupt their natural behaviour, including feeding patterns and time spent at the surface. Disruptions to these could have a negative impact on the whale's health, which is why the conduct of whale watching boats is carefully regulated in countries such as Scotland. Not all countries have strict regulations for this though, and we are still working to understand the impacts of tourism on whale health. While whale watching is not a perfect alternative, it is significantly less harmful to whale populations than commercial whaling and still provides an economic benefit.

Their cuddle-factor aside, whales are important both ecologically and economically, making them important candidates for conservation. What other marine species do you think should be protected on these grounds?


Gales, N. J. et al. Japan's whaling plan under scrutiny. Nature 435 883-884 (2005)

Hurd, I. On law, science and whales: the case of Australia v Japan. The Conversation (2013).

Cisneros-Montemayor, A.M. et al. The global potential for whale watching. Marine Policy 34 1273-1278 (2010)

Pershing A. J. et al. The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better. PLoS ONE 5 (2010)

Rudd, A. Seven Alternatives to Scientific Japanese Whaling (That Can Save The Whale). Scitable (2013)

Scottish Natural Heritage The Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code (2004)

Smith, C. R. and Baco, A. J. Ecology of whale falls on the deep sea floor in Oceanography and Marine Biology, An Annual Review (edited by R. N. Gibson, R. J. A. Atkinson) 41 311-354 (2003)

Voytek, B. The measure of a whale. Scitable (2013)

Whittington, K. The Japanese Whaling Controversy - a Collision of Science, Commerce, and Culture. Scitable (2013)

Williams et al. Behavioural responses of killer whales (Orcinus orca) to whale-watching boats: opportunistic observations and experimental approaches. Journal of the Zoological Society of London 256 255-260 (2002)

You can keep up to date with the progress of the Japanese whaling case in the International Court of Justice here.


1) A sperm whale pod, one of the species targeted by Japanese whaling vessels. Credit: Gabriel Barathieu via Wikimedia Commons

2) The remains of a whale carcass, also known as a whale fall. You can spot bacterial mats in yellow as well as a host of invertebrates feeding on the remains. Credit: Craig Smith/NOAA via Wikimedia Commons

3) Catching a glimpse of a whale – whale watching in the Azores. Credit: Louca Nebuloni via Wikimedia Commons

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