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Nearly Three Million Dead Whales Raise Questions

16/04/2015 12:37 BST | Updated 14/06/2015 10:59 BST

Counting whale corpses matters! It not only shows how devastating whaling has been but as the latest revelations show, it also underpins one of the key arguments against any resumption of commercial whaling in the future - which is that whaling must be subject to independent scrutiny.

It has been known for some time that whaling records are far from accurate; after all you don't ask the fox to count the chickens. However, researchers have only now been able to reliably estimate the full and incredible toll of industrialised commercial whaling in the 20th century. This period of whaling benefited from significant technological advances that made it easier than ever before to efficiently render whales into commercial goods, principally the motorised whale catcher boat, the exploding harpoon gun and enhanced processing and storage capacity at sea. These advances meant that no whale was safe in any ocean.

New whale catch totals from researchers Robert Rocha, Phillip Clapham and Yulia Ivashchenko, published in the Marine Fisheries Review, show that from 1900 to 1999 nearly 2.9 million whales were killed and processed by industrialised whaling. The two most hunted species were the fin whale (874,068 taken) and the sperm whale or cachalot (761,523); these kill totals together comprise more than half the total number of whales taken. Many whale populations were reduced to a fraction of their former size, and Southern Ocean blue whales are still estimated to be at less than one per cent of their original population size. Some whale populations were certainly exterminated, likely including some that we had not even detected and described.

But the scale of the whaling - which has been described as the biggest human-induced removal of biomass ever - is only part of the story. It raises important questions. Firstly, why is it only now that we are finding out the true scale of whaling, and, secondly, what does this mean for the future?

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the body which collects whaling data and its databases have been regularly updated as new whaling records have come to light. For much of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, as the number of whales caught (and the size of the individual whales taken) declined, Japan and the USSR continued to meet their kill quotas, and this was in part because much of their whaling was illegal. The Japanese were catching many undersized whales in their coastal fisheries and, to meet the regulations set by the IWC, were falsifying their reports.

Likewise, the USSR conducted large scale illegal catches for three decades. The estimate for the total global catch by the USSR is 534,204 whales, of which 178,811 were not reported to the IWC. Rocha and colleagues noted that other countries also took some whales illegally after various bans were introduced.

Given this widespread and in some cases very large-scale cheating by the whalers, what would prevent this from happening again if large scale commercial whaling were to resume, as Japan and other whaling nations want? The answer is not reassuring: nothing. As in other offshore operations for high value or vulnerable species, mechanisms would need to be put in place to ensure compliance with the rules - for example, verification of catches should be conducted by independent observers from countries other than the whaling nation; vessel monitoring schemes would be needed to track vessel movements in real time, alongside satellite surveillance and other monitoring, control and supervision tools. However, when the IWC tried to negotiate such a scheme (known as the 'Revised Management Scheme' or RMS) for commercial whaling, these and other mechanisms, such as DNA databases to ensure that protected species were not entering the market illegally, were resisted by the whaling nations, who also refused to consider paying for the controls. In other words they wanted to be free to kill whales commercially, but without proper oversight in place to ensure compliance.

Ultimately negotiations on the RMS, which ran from 1994, stalled in 2007 when the IWC annual meeting concluded that an 'impasse' had been reached. Predictably, both pro- and anti-whaling nations accused each other of being unreasonable, but the anti-whaling nations were only seeking what was used (and accepted by the whaling nations) in other initiatives aimed at managing other living marine resources.

This should of course have been the end of commercial whaling for at least as long as the impasse sticks, but the whaling nations are playing a long game. They are attempting a political sleight of hand that focuses attention exclusively on the notion of sustainability-the idea that whaling can and should proceed as soon as the IWC's Scientific Committee determines what it believes is a safe removal rate for a particular population. But even if sustainable quotas were possible in theory, in practice they are only a fraction of the picture. If the lessons of past whaling teach us anything, it is that the IWC would also have to implement (and ensure funding of) schemes for independently monitoring whaling operations and markets. What goes on out at sea, cannot just stay out at sea. And there are, of course, other compelling reasons why commercial whaling should be consigned to history, including its inherent cruelty.