Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. X No. 3 - July 2001


The Moral Imperative For Whale Protection

By Dr. Robbins Barstow, Director Emeritus, Cetacean Society International


Let's not lose sight of the moral imperatives involved in the IWC's decisions regarding the authorizing of whale killing for money.

The purposes asserted in the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (Article V, Section 2) are "to provide for the conservation, development, and optimum utilization of the whale resources." The determination of what constitutes "optimum utilization" of whale resources is ultimately a moral decision. It is up to the member states, through the International Whaling Commission, to make the judgment as to whether whales are best used by lethal exploitation or benign protection.

At its core, the issue now before the IWC is not that of sustainable yield, but rather whether or not it is morally acceptable, in the eyes of the world today, to sanction any renewed commercial killing of such large, sentient, and peaceful fellow creatures as whales.

Moral standards in human society have evolved and changed over the years. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1945 established on a global basis the wrongness of killing or torturing human beings anywhere on earth.

Today, increasing numbers of persons, groups, and nations have come to feel that the killing and torturing of great whales anywhere on earth, for commercial purposes, is so abhorrent a practice that it can no longer be morally justified.

The IWC is the recognized international organization which must make the moral decision concerning the reauthorization of whaling for profit, on behalf of the present and future generations whose interests and values its members represent.

The Whales' Special Claim

What is there about whales that gives them a special moral claim for long-term protection as the best use of these "great natural resources"?

Whales are unique. They are the largest animals on earth. They are our closest brain neighbors, the sperm whale's brain weighing four or five times as much as a human brain. They fulfill a unique niche in the ecology of the ocean. Their status as non-national animals, beyond the legal control of any one country, makes them politically unique. Dwelling in the world's oceans as a common heritage of all humankind, their future must be based on global standards and determined by the recognized international organization, the IWC.

Most of all, whales are culturally unique. Living whales have an almost unbelievable capacity for enriching the lives of human beings with whom they come in peaceful contact. They have a uniquely universal appeal to the human spirit. They are unmatched invokers of awe.

There is a mystique about whales that inspires an all but universal sense of wonder and exhilaration among humans of all races and nations, generating a moral bond which appears to embrace all but those still engaged in the actual business of killing whales.

Forward or Backward?

The adoption by the International Whaling Commission, at its July 2001 Annual Meeting in London, of a Revised Management Scheme legitimizing the resumption, however restricted, of commercial whale killing would represent a major step backward in humankind's ethical development.

Rejecting this proposal and maintaining the existing zero quotas on all species, on the other hand, would represent a significant forward step, looking toward an IWC management regime of long-term protection from consumptive, commercial exploitation on a global basis. It would recognize the new moral imperative to achieve the "optimum utilization of cetacean resources" through benign interactions such as regulated whale watching, non-lethal research, and widespread educational, aesthetic, and environmental programs.

Peaceful coexistence and mutual enrichment should be the overriding goal for future relations between humans and whales in the global community.

Sperm whale breaching

Sperm whale breaching off the Galapagos Islands (Photo by Hal Whitehead)


Notable Quotes

Sir Peter Scott, the late, British naturalist, author, and artist, and a founder of World Wildlife Fund: "What we have done to the great whales in the sacred name of commerce is an affront to human dignity and a debasement of human values and sensibility... In the light of present knowledge of these intelligent mammals, no civilized person can contemplate the whaling industry without revulsion and shame at the insensitivity of our own species." (Quoted in "Why Whales?" a special publication of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, United Kingdom, 1991.)

Dr. Victor B. Scheffer, marine mammal scientist and author, and first chairman of the United States Marine Mammal Commission: "Whales are awesome... They deserve to be known and cherished, not for their potential as meatballs, but as a collective inspiration for humankind. The thought of managing them for their spiritual value alone seems far more civilized than is the thought of managing them to satisfy a tiny fraction of the world's insatiable demand for marine product commerce." (From an article in the Atlantic Monthly, August 1999.)

Hideo Obara, Japanese scientist: "Whales are not domestic animals. The oceans where whales live are not the private property of Japan... The strength of anti-whaling advocates within the International Whaling Commission today may mean that the anti-whaling sentiment has become the prevailing opinion worldwide, and that the time has come for even the Japanese government to change its attitude." (From "Whaling: The Conservation Side of Japanese Public Opinion," in The Siren, published by the Oceans and Coastal Areas Programme of the United Nations Environment Program, Kenya 1987.)

Walter Cronkite, American news broadcaster: "Cetaceans have a number of special traits which appear to place them in a different moral category than other animals... There is something in humanity's ethical development that is done violence to when men kill without compunction intelligent creatures which a growing number of people consider almost human." (CBS Radio Broadcast, 1978.)

Wade Doak, New Zealand whale researcher, author and filmmaker: "The current world ethic now demands that all whale and dolphin killing should cease - not just because some species are threatened with extinction, or because of the special cruelty involved in their deaths by harpoon, but because these creatures are unique, in a very special class of their own in their relationship with human beings. In rising to this world ethic, our humanity is increased." (In Christchurch Press, New Zealand, 2000.)

Statement signed by 188 marine biologists and other scientists from 23 countries, June 1992: "We believe that whales alive serve science best, and that the optimum utilization of these resources must stem from benign, non-lethal interaction. We therefore recommend an end to all commercial whale killing, for the foreseeable future."


Go to next article: The IWC: The Fate of the Whales in the Balance or: Table of Contents.

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