"That Vision thing" by Sidney Holt

Yesterday I mentioned the new vision about whales and dolphins that emerged in the 1970s and was punctuated by a series of events in all the arts and at least some of the sciences.  I want to elaborate that idea now because it is, for me, relevant to our attitudes towards the IWC Chairmens’ proposals for “reform” in particular and to the IWC in general. Let me begin with the opening of the reform deal, entitled a Vision Statement:

The IWC will work cooperatively to improve the conservation and management of whale populations and stocks on a scientific basis and through agreed policy measures. By improving our knowledge of whales, their environment, and the multiple threats that can affect their welfare, the Commission will strive to ensure that whale populations are healthy and resilient components of the marine environment.

One could quarrel with the vague wording of this declaration – for example “healthy populations” is a phrase much used by proponents of whaling but which has never been defined and I submit is meaningless. “Resilience” is a characteristic of a system, not of a component, and an environment is not an ecosystem. But let’s not be pedantic. I find the apparent intention, though poorly drafted, is not far from the ideas I had about fisheries management when I was a young researcher and adviser to government in the 1950s. Science and policy, operating together in an inter-governmental context. But the references to “science” here are throw-away, fashionable phrases; no suggestion at all has been made as to how the IWC will now “improve our knowledge of whales and their environment”, beyond counting them

This is a very narrow vision indeed, and far away from what I was talking about yesterday. Being a biologist I have a tendency to classify. It seems to me there are three emerging threads of visions about human relations with whales and dolphins. One, I suppose, is that we should manage our economic and cultural uses of the cetaceans in such a way as to generate current value, long-term value and very long.term value from them, and that such management (not of cetaceans, but of our own activities that affect them, directly or indirectly) should be based on science in its broadest sense and on moral and ethical considerations, such as that we care for the well-being of future generations, especially of humans.

The proposed Consensus Decision to Improve the Conservation of Whales (Document IWC/62/7rev) appears to see such a vision but, in my view, through cataracts.

A second emergent vision is of our using cetaceans in such a way as to pay due regard to them as individual, sentient animals. The ways of killing whales have hardly changed in more than a century, since the Norwegian whaler Svend Foyn invented his cannon-harpoon and explosive grenade-air inflation “modern” system. One minor change was made, as a result of IWC action in reaction to public horror at the way small whales such as the minke and even some larger species were being shot with “cold” (non-explosive) grenades simply because as the most desired product changed from oil to meat much of the meat was being destroyed by explosions inside the whale. This led to the new Norwegian development of the penthrite grenade, which is better for the meat dealers but not for the whales. It was important that the IWC banned the use of the cold grenade, a move that obliterated the insistent claim by some governments that the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling  cannot address matters of cruelty and animal welfare.

The only other substantive methodological change has been the introduction of high intensity horizontal sonar for scaring and chasing the whales – hardly a welfare improvement! (This was kept secret for many years by Japanese scientists in the IWC’s Scientific Committee, the persistent claim being that the sonar was being used merely for improved detection of submerged animals.

The Norwegian Commissioner’s claim, in a recent radio interview, that killing minke whales is ethically no different from slaughtering sheep in an abatoir is both absurd and disgusting, but is still the sort of thing we hear again and again in defence of “modern whaling”. This argument is also continually perverted to the statement that those who object ethically to the killing of  whales are opposed simply to the eating of whale meat. When I heard the Commissioner’s statement the other day I had just read the account of a Norwegian minke hunt by BBC reporter David Shuckman (10 May)  in which the whale killed while he was onboard took two minutes and a grenade and five rifle shots to die. The same day I read the account of an Icelander who went on a minke whale hunt in which the whale took two hours to die after being penetrated by four harpoons, It is said that if the gunner is good the whale dies instantly in at least 99% of kills. But humane killing is not defined by statistics. What would be the public reaction if, in an abattoir, one in every hundred bolts misfired resulting in the cows breaking out of the shed and racing about for minutes, hours, outside? No, the statistical argument for humane killing does not wash. Our problem in getting deeper understanding of this industry comes from the fact that its operations are conducted out of sight, which is why whaling companies put such draconian restrictions on access to them by photographers and other recorders.

The third thread is more interesting, scientifically. It has to do with the nature of the minds of non-human animals and out interest in and ability to study them, leading to consideration of animal rights. Here distinctions have to be made between species, at least for the time being. I don’t know many scientists trying to understand the minds of worms or even of frogs and other vertebrates, although the precursor of such studies is steadily proceeding – behavioural science - along with better experimental and observational technologies. But I know many scientists trying to understand elephants, great apes and dolphins (the great size of whales presents practical difficulties but even that is beginning to happen) I am fascinated by the fact that elephants, bonobos, bottlenose dolphins and grey parrots can recognize themselves in mirrors, just like human babies. Such recognition takes us way beyond intra-specific and inter-specific communication, and the early, primitive arguments about the significance of differences in the sizes and structures of brains, although the discovery – I think by Dr Hal Whitehead and his associates - that sperm whales have individual call signals – names - is spectacular.  At least enough is known now to have generated a movement to secure rights for the apes – the Great Ape Project, DAP, founded in 1993. And earlier this month (21-22 May) a significant conference was held at the University of Helsinki, Finland. entitled Cetacean Rights: Fostering Moral and Legal Change which developed a Declaration of the Right for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins ( )

Clearly we have some way to go before the participants in the IWC take much notice. Few of them, outside the Scientific Committee, nowadays know much about whaling, let alone about whales. But Helsinki is a start or, rather, another step along the thread laid down nearly forty years ago by Joan McIntyre in her seminal book Mind in the Waters.

There, I’ve revealed myself as a nutter who thinks that the bodies of at least some types of animals should not be regarded as mere sources of marketable commodities, nor deliberately caused excruciating and prologed pain. For this I expect to be consigned to the edge of polite society, along with climate-change-deniers, believers in non-carbon life and similar undesirables.