“The killing of whales turned from a harvest to a crime. A powerful shared conscience had suddenly appeared.”
- David Attenborough, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet [Netflix Documentary]
Within his own Netflix documentary “A Life on Our Planet”[i], David Attenborough mentions the criminalisation of whaling as a enormous step in the right direction to ensuring the ecosystem's biodiversity. This step was also significant in terms of Environmental Law as it implemented restrictions that prioritised ecosystems and environmental conservation over economic profit or other industries such as research.
THE HISTORY OF WHALING AND WHALE PROTECTION
Throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, commercial whaling brought multiple whale species to the brink of extinction.
Whale products (oil/fat/baleen etc.) were used for a variety of Nineteenth and Twentieth century products. Lighting, lubrication, soaps, varnish, cosmetics, paint or more, were all products derived from whale oil, and the consequential whaling efforts.
To shift whales’ devastating trajectory, heading towards mass extinction, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded and the “International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling” was signed, both in 1946. [ii]
THE INTERNATIONAL WHALING COMMISSION
The IWC currently states that “[they are] the global body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling.” Currently, there are 88 member governments from countries all over the world that are a part of the IWC[iii].
Although the IWC was created in 1946, it was not until approximately twenty years later that countries involved to agree to create the first legal, global ban to criminalise the whaling of Blue Whales.
THE 1970’s; “A POWERFUL SHARED CONSCIENCE” CREATING CHANGE
Despite this initial ban, the issue of whaling remained an environmental catastrophe. Attenborough states “Whales were being slaughtered by fleets of industrial whaling ships in the 1970’s.”. Because of this, "Greenpeace" created its “early whaling campaign” to shine a “spotlight on the industry in a way that had never happened before”[iv]. The showing of images depicting whaled being killed sparked a “powerful shared conscience”, as stated by Attenborough, shifting the public opinion strongly against whaling. This public opinion called for legal protection for these creatures, and there was a strong push for a greater presence of Environmental Law for the purpose of protecting these creatures, and environmental ecosystems.
THE ROLE OF ENVIRONMENTAL LAW
After this pressure grew for over a decade, in 1982 the IWC voted for a moratorium (ban) on commercial whaling. The implementation of this ban came into force four years later in 1986, marking an enormous triumph for both Greenpeace, and the public. This step was one of the most successful conservation efforts induced by Environmental Law and highlights just how essential Environmental Law is in the protection of the world around us. This ban, supposedly, marked the effective end of large-scale whaling around the world.
AN ONGOING PROBLEM
However; although the criminalisation of whaling was a significant step in the right direction, the issue of whaling has not been solved entirely.
Despite commercial whaling being banned in 1986, Japan, Norway, and Iceland have killed nearly 40,000 large whales since then. [v]
All three nations believe they have a right to hunt whales, due to loopholes and pretences such as “scientific research” that legally permit whaling, or blatant objections to the ban. Japan, for example, claims its objective is scientific research, whilst Norway simply objects to the ban.
Moreover, Blue Whales are still an endangered species and there are thought to be no more than 25,000 living in the world today (BBC cited below). This distressing statistic further highlights the importance of Environmental Law in the sustainability of our ecosystems, and humans' interactions with them.
One final concern is the fact that some countries are looking to undo the legal protection of whales and are fighting to decriminalise whaling once more. This could create an enormous to the ocean’s marine biodiversity.
To maintain a healthy biodiversity, and to maintain our planet, the way humans interact with the environment around us must be conscious and considerate. Environmental Law, as is evident through past examples stated, is one vital part of ensuring these qualities remain a part of human behaviour.
AN OPTIMISTIC CLOSING THOUGHT
Although there is a devastating history, and concerning present events regarding the criminalisation of whaling, it is important to remember just how much the implementation of this ban has achieved. The average number of whales killed each year has decreased from 30,000p.a.[vi] in the Twentieth Century to 1,000p.a.[vii] in the Twenty-First Century, populations of Blue Whale have increased by 8%p.a. in the twenty-five years to 2003[viii] and most importantly, public opinion has shifted to prioritising the protection of sustained environmental health and biodiversity.
A SHORT VIDEO FROM THE WHALE AND DOLPHIN CONSERVATION (WDC)
[i] David Attenborough, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet [Netflix Documentary]
[v] https://au.whales.org/our-4-goals/stop-whaling/ [vi] https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/3-million-whales-were-killed-20th-century-report-n322961 [vii]https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/whale#:~:text=Despite%20a%20moratorium%20on%20commercial,killed%20for%20such%20commercial%20purposes. [viii]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2007/jun/01/conservation.endangeredspecies
Approx. 25,000 Whale Statistic: https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/51570515s