There Were Giants

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Humpback Whale Lips

Muzzle of a humpback whale that sidled up to the boat I was on in the Stellwagon Banks off the coast of Boston, 1991. Three whales spent about two hours lounging around the boat, one of them lifting her snout up to the gunwhale and letting people stroke her chin, while her son did cartwheels among the waves just off the bow of the boat. The skin felt like wetsuit rubber and the breath, especially when she sneezed globs of fish and krill slobber all over my brother, was, let’s just say, “overwhelming”.

I came across this article last night, about Japan’s big victory in securing a huge portion of the votes in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) the other day. I’m not going to go into the petty details of how the organization works or what exactly happened. Suffice it to say that this is such an unnecessary development. Absolutely no good can come of such foolishness. What is at stake is not anachronistic Japanese cultural traditions (the argument that eating whale meat is part of Japanese tradition is simply not true. Japanese did not eat meat until very recently in their history, and whale meat only made it into people’s homes at the end of the Meiji era, when food shortages forced the government to seek alternative food sources), but the existence of fellow creatures.

What does it take for people to care about something other than themselves? The planet is our common home, irreplaceable and absolutely vital to our own existence. If for nothing else we ought to protect the planet, together, just for our own survival. We cannot exist without other life around us.

10 Responses

  1. your skills with written and visual images continue to nourish in a way that only miraku abarage can

  2. When there are no humpback whales alive, what then? This would not be the loss of just “another species”. These are unquestionably iconic; they have the power to move us in ways we don’t even understand. How is it possible to view them as mere meat?

    There ARE giants. There will continue to be giants. There must be giants.

  3. I totally agree Butuki! I actually saw whales on Sunday whilst walking along our breakwater. They came within 100metres of us. Totally awesome, magnificent creatures! How anyone can kill them is beyond me! I’m happy to know that not everyone in Japan is in favour of whaling. I have been following the voting at the IWC and I was keeping my fingers crossed that I would see something written on this blog about it…so thanks!

  4. Well said Butuki! I think human beings don’t think of anything but their selfishness, that’s disgusting.

    Anyway thank you for your post.

  5. We do that which we can, each of us in our small way…
    Through our actions we begin to influence those around us and they, in turn will pass on the message…
    Never feel despondent, never think “It’s too little, hopeless, in vain”
    Every small step contributes to the journey
    Each thoughtful action bears fruit…
    Awareness Will Come…

  6. Wonderful photo!

  7. Thanks everyone for your words. Sometimes it feels so hard to keep your dignity about when you feel something prescious is being destroyed. It’s funny how much effort and money and passion go into acquiring and protecting famous works of art, but things like whales and snow leopards and gorillas seem to hold no value. It’s not just the senseless killing, but the complete indifference to accepting oneself as part of the living world and honoring our capacity to see and incorporate beauty.

  8. I think it’s kind of sad that some humans can say “whales are magnificent” and on the other hand eat chicken and beef burgers at the same time.

    Humpbacks in the Southern Hemisphere are on the comeback path.

    The humpback populations off the west and east coasts of Australia are recovering quickly, and have been recovering for years now (they were protected back in 1963, after a 10 year period of slaughter by Australia in which 17,000 were killed). Recent estimates put the population in the Southern Hemisphere at more than 40,000, and the number is increasing.
    Scientists forecast the stocks that migrate up the coasts of Australia to be fully recovered within the next 2 decades.

    Under these circumstances, is it really fair for humans to demand that not even a single humpback be killed for food, while thousands of animals (chickens, cows, pigs) lead miserable lives every day for the purpose of providing food to humans?

    Is it not a just thing to reduce the suffering of the farm animals by utilising whale resources to such a level that is sustainable?

  9. Hi David. A fair and relevant question. I wasn’t demanding (and a great number of other whale supporters, too) that not a single human being kill whales for food. I see nothing wrong with the Inuit or people who have always depended on whales for sustenance to continue killing whales at sustainable levels. Here I am speaking only of the Japanese, who can not claim any need to kill a single whale. Without whales the Japanese will still have a huge surplus of food. There is so much surplus of food here in Japan that a great percentage of rice fields have long been set fallow so as to drive up the prices of the rice stocks. For the first time in its history Japan is growing into a nation of overweight people. Killing and eating whale here is nothing but a luxury.

    Australia and New Zealand and other countries like them make a concerted effort to protect and improve the environment. Japan talks a lot, but couldn’t care less about the environment outside its own shores. They showcase with pride their world heritage locales like Yakushima and Shirakami-sanchi, and proudly sweep their hands across views of country-wdie, green-blanketed mountains (while at the same time ignoring that these “forests” are monocultural islands of species sterility and the major cause of respiratory epidemics like hay fever) while nonchalantly razing the forests of Southeast Asia for its voracious appetite for wood. Japan is all show and tell, with very little real-world results. Their attitude toward killing whales is no different.

    This of course doesn’t excuse other countries for their transgressions, nor does it alleviate the suffering of farm animals, but then again my solution for reducing the suffering of farm animals is to adopt as vegetarian a diet as possible, as Jane Goodall tries to reason in her book, “Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating “.

  10. Thanks for your cordial reply.

    I guess I would make two comments to start:

    1) I don’t regard the Japanese as being homogenous. Your comments are quite true for city dwellers, but I don’t think they can be applied equally to the people of traditional coastal whaling communities scattered around Japan, for whom the cultural connection with whales has been documented to be as strong as that of whaling peoples in other parts of the world.

    2) I don’t believe that “need” should be the grounds on which the international community should determine whether the leave the whaling peoples alone or not in the first instance. The USA is the world’s richest country. There is no doubt that other forms of food could be provided to the Alaskan whalers on the north slope. Of course, those people would not be happy at being told not to kill whales for food anymore (just as Japanese people who wish to eat whales are unhappy).

    On the other hand, we shouldn’t permit whaling even by people regarded as “traditional enough” if it were to threaten the surival of the targetted whale species (the Alaskans are hunting the endangered bowhead species).

    In the international community, the rules need to be the same for everyone, or some groups will become discontented with the hypocrisy and double standards. So, rather than looking at what people need, we ought to look at scientific arguments, for these are the only grounds upon which all in the international community should be able to agree.

    From a conservation perspective, a fair, non-arbitrary means on which such decisions could be made is by getting advice from the world’s leading cetacean scientists, who gather each year prior to the IWC meetings, and if the advice is that there are stocks of whales for which sustainable catch limits could be set, and there are people who are interested in undertaking such a harvest, it should be allowed in principle. This was how the IWC was meant to work when it was first devised, although this situation is still yet to be realized.

    > Australia and New Zealand and other countries like them make a concerted effort to protect and improve the environment.

    Funny you mention that. In the IWC Scientific Committee’s latest report, the Government of New Zealand is recommended to urgently increase protection for a domestic population of bottlenose dolphins that has been adversely effected by eco-tourism.
    http://www.iwcoffice.org/commission/sci_com/screport.htm
    (See “SC Main Report” page 64)

    This has received very little press coverage in the western media, while the environmental groups continue to harp on about whaling activities that appear to be quite sustainable.

    > Japan is all show and tell, with very little real-world results. Their attitude toward killing whales is no different.

    Leaving aside your comments about Japan’s track record, you might at least be relieved to know that the Japanese government is not the body that would set catch limits for commercial whaling. The IWC is the body that would set catch limits, and the IWC would only do so based upon advice from their Scientific Committee. And the SC can today provide advice on sustainable catch limits. Over a number of years following the IWC’s commercial whaling moratorium, they developed a “Revised Management Procedure”.

    Below are what some scientists have said about it.

    1) Judy Zeh talking to Australia’s ABC a few years ago when she was Chair of the IWC SC:
    “it’s certainly true that if commercial whaling were resumed under the revised management procedure, it could be managed safely”
    (http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/stories/s147657.htm)

    2) Greg Donovan, Head of Science at the IWC, commenting just a few weeks ago:
    “From a scientific perspective, the IWC Scientific Committee has developed probably the most rigorously tested way to estimate safe catch levels for any marine species.”
    (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5103378.stm)

    3) Doug Butterworth (fisheries management expert) on the SC’s revised management procedure:
    “it is so risk averse that the only real scientific basis for questioning its immediate implementation is that it is so conservative that it will waste much of a potential harvest.”
    (http://www.highnorth.no/Library/Management_Regimes/NAMMCO/su-ut-of.htm)

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