Posted by: carlsafina | Tuesday, June 23 09

“Is it just plain ‘wrong’ to kill whales?”

Andy Revkin of the New York Times has a story about Iceland’s plan to kill whales this year.

He sent an email to me and to several other people who’ve devoted considerable time to thinking about whales, whaling, and the humane treatment of animals, posing the question, “Is it just plain ‘wrong’ to kill whales?”

Here’s my response.  Look for others on his blog in the responses section.

Humpback breaching - youtubeIs it wrong to kill whales? Because some say it’s wrong and some say it’s right, I start with the assumption that it’s inherently neither wrong nor right. The question is: what should we do? And the answer to that comes from what we want, how we want to steer ourselves, and what kind of people we want to be.

Except for people who think the world cannot be depleted because it is miraculously re-stocked or that it is being depleted because it is supposed to end soon, it is universally agreed that we want to use many things in the world, but not exterminate or deplete what we use. No one seriously wants to use everything we could use; many people would draw the line at eating various creatures or other humans (though there are always exceptions).

So regardless of whether I like whaling or not, the question of should we kill whales becomes, by wider agreement, one of, ‘Can we kill whales sustainably?’

In theory, we could. But part of the answer comes from the performance of whaling itself. First, all hunted whale populations were depleted, some exterminated. Atlantic Gray Whales were completely wiped out. Several species remain near the brink of the blink; others are recovering. So there is a history of excess. Second, in modern industrial whaling, whaling boats’ log books were often falsified, sometimes reporting one-tenth of the whales killed. So there’s a history of dishonesty, and a willingness to break rules. Many whale-meat packages sold as food in Japan have been proven by DNA testing to be species other than the one advertised. Often, the meat actually comes from supposedly protected species in supposedly closed waters. As I said, dishonesty appears to be inherent in this business. Third, the world has a critical need to bring the oceans under the rule of law and to democratize decision-making, because boats working out of boundaries have depleted fish, turtles, sharks,  and formerly seabirds, whales, and seals. The international commissions set up to govern fishing and whaling activities on the world’s oceans are part of where civilization needs to go. Japan works against this civilizing process by threatening economic sanctions against countries inclined to vote differently, refusing to abide by agreed-to fishing quotas (they’ve been twice convicted in the World Court of systematic, government-sanctioned fishing well over their quota for bluefin tuna) and undermining the democratic intent of the International Whaling Commission by stacking the deck-paying for and bringing in member countries like Mongolia and many impoverished Caribbean states whose sole interest in whaling is to vote with Japan and get paid for it.

So can we kill whales sustainably? Apparently not. Then should we kill whales? No.

-Carl Safina



  1. Thank you Carl, your succinct words for whales. Nowadays when we consumers pass along fresh fish section of local retail markets (me, an American “housewife” long in Japan) we see whale marked simply “kojira” (whale). And there’s mail-order “whale bacon.” Evidently there’s a measure of ignorance. Thanks for your ongoing writing, and could there come to be also a world-class movie on this one too? Sundance. Force it into Japan!

  2. Thank you for your abstract thoughts on a very emotional issue – at least for many of us.
    This year I observed and photographed a lot of different whale species in their environment: Grey Whales, Humpbacks, Fin, Blue Whales and Seigh Whales.
    On one particular event I looked directly into a whales eye and saw it watching me.
    In May I started photographing in the arctic and was there when one of the bowhead whales was hunted and caught by the Inupiat. It started a thought-process in me about the value of life. Why do I value a whale more then a caribou? Is it the size? Is it the numbers of individuals…… Is it its mind or the personal connection I had with whales this year? Can I judge the Inupiat whale hunt if I myself eat meat.
    I guess here is where I would go to the same line of thought asking about the sustainability.

  3. Hi Carl,

    I wanted to “thank you” for the passion you have. And I really liked all your posting and look forward too reading your future posting.

    Jacque from Florida

    • thanks very much; very kind of you. I’m also putting some things up on Facebook and Twitter.

  4. its so wrong to kill whales. One day i’m going to make sure no one kills whales

  5. first you compare the advantages and disadvantages of whaling, but soon you only states the disadvantages and thus this article is not impartial. You should have mentioned the bad effect of whales like some of them eating fish. BTW I dont understand why Australian love whales that much. Is it ethically right to kill kangaroos?

    • My opinion is not meant to be so impartial that I have no opinion. I try to have the most reasonable opinion, considering the facts. Whales eating fish is not, in my opinion, a bad effect. It’s what some of them eat. They can’t eat tofu. The biggest food problem is caused by people eating most fish faster than they can breed, because there are so many of us. Approximately 90% of the great whales were destroyed, and most populations are still at a fraction of former numbers. By contrast, there are a lot of kangaroos of some species. That said, I certainly would not want to kill a kangaroo. I’d rather find ways to live and let live, not make more excuses for more killing.

  6. So, Carl, in biggest food problem, when people and animal have eye on same food, if one or t’other don’t/won’t/can’t share, one or t’other gotta back off, get pushed off, or worse off, isn’t that so? Not exactly dog eat dog, but what some Japan fisher/whaler recently said: “Whales are cockroach of sea!” ?! “Maaaah, because of being a pest, taking what’s ours, we’ve gotta make a living!” … Humans ordinarily kill pests … what’s up, whales? … as for dolphins in some coastal coves, science defines it as genocide. Is ignorance bliss? You certainly don’t think so. Thank you Carl

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