It’s bad news for whales. Japan has resumed commercial whaling, bringing back to port the country’s first official catch since it withdrew from the International Whaling Commission, a global organization committed to the conservation of whales. But Japan isn’t the only country still hunting whales, in spite of a 1986 ban on the practice. Norway and Iceland hunt whales too.
Whales roam throughout all of the world’s oceans, communicating with complex and mysterious sounds. Their sheer size amazes us: the blue whale can reach lengths of more than 100 feet and weigh up to 200 tons—as much as 33 elephants.
Despite living in the water, whales breathe air. A thick layer of fat called blubber insulates them from cold ocean waters. And like humans, they are warm-blooded mammals who nurse their young. We know that they feel pain just like us too.
Whales are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Unfortunately their large size and mythical aura does not protect them; six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered, even after decades of protection.
There are a number of factors contributing to the current endangered status of whales such as overfishing, pollution, dam/bridge construction, private/commercial boating and commercial whaling, but out of these contributing factors commercial whaling has had the largest effect on the endangered status of today’s existing whale populations.
Fortunately, whale meat is becoming less appetizing. Conservation groups have revealed that Norwegian exports of minke whale to Japan contained damaging levels of toxic pesticides, making that meat unfit for human consumption. It’s a discovery that could cue a swifter decline in the appetite for whale meat.
Japan used to import whale meat from Norway but had to stop. Tests showed samples contained pesticides at twice the limit Japan imposes on its imports. The meat harbored chemicals such as aldrin, dieldrin, and chlordane, thought to play a role in causing birth defects, neurological harm, and some cancers, if humans consume them in high quantities.
We hope that this is a wake-up call for those cultures that still consume whale meat. Of course we wish that the whales weren’t so polluted, since it isn’t good for their health either, but we also wish that they were free to roam the oceans without fear of capture. Hopefully that day will come in the not-too-distant future.