Laci M. Gerhart Barley

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Commercial and Subsistence Whaling

For the C-CHANGE course Climate Change in Greenland and the Arctic, my research project focused on the bowhead whaling industry and addressed the following questions: 1) how have subsistence and commercial bowhead whaling operations been regulated? 2) how did early commercial whaling and the presence of western commercial whalers impact the culture of the Inuit? 3) how will predicted changes in Arctic climate affect bowhead whales and the Inuit? and 4) what does the history of the bowhead whaling industry tell us about cultural conflicts over shared resources? My research determined that 1) commercial bowhead whaling was never formally regulated as international agreements were only enacted about 20 years after the collapse of the bowhead whaling industry. Today, some Inuit are granted a small “aboriginal subsistence quota” discussed below, 2) early in the commercial industry, contact between western whalers and the Inuit was mainly trade. As the industry developed, contact increased, which brought many new things to the Inuit including guns, alcohol, disease, missionization and (near the end of the industry) starvation due to lack of whales and walruses (which supplemented the bowhead industry), 3) bowhead and Inuit will be primarily impacted by unpredictable sea ice conditions which could change bowhead migration routes, as well as increased human activity in the region from natural resource exploration/exploitation, ecotourism, shipping traffic and scientific research. The fourth question is discussed in detail below.

Alaskan Inuit butcher a bowhead whale. The blubber and meat will be distributed among the community.

Alaskan Inuit butcher a bowhead whale. The blubber and meat will be distributed among the community.

Though I would certainly consider myself an environmentalist, during my research on this project, I increasingly found myself frustrated with the avidness with which environmental organizations fight the rights of various countries and communities to continue whaling. The International Whaling Commission enacted a moratorium on whaling in 1986, which applies only to large whales (so-called small cetaceans, such as dolphins and smaller whales are excluded) and which applies only to countries that are members of the IWC and do not qualify for any exemptions (such as an aboriginal subsistence quota, under which Alaskan Inuit, among others, continue to whale legally). Often, environmental groups push a preservationist stance in which each individual whale must be protected, as opposed to a conservationist stance in which the population or species as a whole is protected. Many whale species can sustain hunting pressure. This is true even for endangered species, such as the bowhead, which has been hunted by aboriginal peoples in Greenland and Alaska under aboriginal subsistence quotas from the IWC for decades and is still showing increasing population sizes. In addition, whale meat and blubber are highly nutritous and provide a vitally important source of high quality and high quantity food for peoples with limited land-based meat sources (for example, island peoples like those on the Faroe Islands, and peoples throughout the Arctic). In many of these regions, whale meat has an important cultural meaning, as well, and can make up significant portions of song, dance, and cultural history. Even so, environmentalists from countries with limited whaling history (such as America and Australia) push the cessation of whaling to the point of obsession. Many articles in favor of a complete whaling ban cite the suffering of the whales during hunting – to which I wonder if any of these persons have visited any of the myriad hog or cattle farms throughout the U.S. and viewed any of the conditions there. Whaling is, in many ways, more environmentally friendly than concentrated animal feed operations in which pigs and cows are raised, and even other marine fisheries practices: whaling requires no input of herbicides, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics; there is no chemical runoff which can contaminate nearby land and water sources; and (unlike many fisheries) results in absolutely no by-catch of non-targeted species.

Exacerbating the issue are the overtones of cultural imperialism which constantly arise in the debate. Nancy Shoemaker (History professor at the University of Connecticut) wrote Whalemeat in American History which outlines American attitudes towards whaling throughout history. Though America was a large part of the commercial bowhead hunt which resulted in the near extinction of the species, the products gained from the whaling of bowhead (and sperm whales) were industrial products made from the baleen and oil of the whales. The meat was rarely eaten. This fact, combined with exaggerated stories of whalers’ experiences with whaling communities, led to a cultural prejudice where communities that rely on whale meat were viewed as primitive and uncivilized. This prejudice continues today, where IWC quotas are granted to “aboriginal subsistence whaling” communities. The term “aboriginal” conjures up stereotypes of poor, under-developed groups. For example, a 1911 National Geographic article described whaling communities as “too poor to buy beef,” and a BBC article published Aug 27, 2010 quoted Andy Ottaway of Campaign Whale, a UK-based NGO, as saying “The Faroes is a fairly wealthy country, and the tradition [of whaling], if that’s what they want to call it, seems to be continuing just for tradition’s sake…” To these attitudes, Shoemaker commented: “‘Aboriginal’ whale eating is contingent on aboriginals’ separation from the world economy, and if they ever moved out of the category of ‘subsistence’ with its connotations of poverty and marginality, then they would presumably eat the same meats as everybody else.” In reality, many whaling countries and communities have a long tradition of sustainable whaling and, in many cases, are willing to abide by international quotas and limitations, provided they are founded in cultural understanding and science-based conservation; NOT cultural imperialism and preservationist rhetoric. The rights of these countries to maintain their cultural relationship to whaling should be maintained, provided whale populations are not over-hunted. Western, non-whaling countries should understand that a lack of whaling importance in our culture, does not mean other cultures should find no value in whaling.

For more information:
READ: my research paper for the C-CHANGE class

Shoemaker, N (2005) Whale Meat in American History, Environmental History, 10(2): 269-294

Sakakibara, C (2009) “No whale, no music”: Inupiaq drumming and global warming, Polar Record 45(235) 289-303

Stoett, P.J. (1997) The International Politics of Whaling, Vancouver, British Columbia, University of British Columbia Press

VISIT: The International Whaling Commission, the Endangered Species List run by the Fish and Wildlife Service