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Scientising Whale Slaughter

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The announcement of the first whale death (cetaceacide) from the Shell Deep Horizon oil spill proved an ominous portent ahead of the 62nd Annual Meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Whaling is one of the more politicised areas of animal law, in which passions and national identity run high. There are only 3 countries that currently allow commercial whaling, a minority trend which often leads to racialised politics. New Zealanders tend to think of it as a non-negotiable issue, up there with bans on nuclear power and weaponry, and genetic engineering.

Whaling is one of New Zealand’s oldest industries and much of the earliest colonial experience was comprised of contact between Maori and Pakeha whaling and sealing crews. This era of New Zealand’s colonial history centred on Kororareka, by the 1830s it was the largest whaling port in the Southern Hemisphere, popularly known as the “Hell-hole of the Pacific“. Our domestic whaling industry collapsed in 1964, and in resuming our membership in the IWC the NZ government issued the uncompromising view that “…whales should not be killed even if it could be shown that whaling does not threaten the existence of the species.” This proclamation was backed by the declaration of an international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, coming into effect in 1986. However, a new approach has been mooted in light of the previous failures to agree at the IWC, a compromise approach (reducing the total number of whales slaughtered) that envisions an eventual cultural transformation. Labour MP Chris Carter has been extremely critical of the limited commercial whaling promoted by the Key administration, despite recent suggestions that Carter and Phil Goff had engaged in diplomatic negotiations along the same terms. Amidst this mess, Foreign Minister Murray McCully and Sir Geoffrey Palmer spent the week in Agadir, Morocco, attempting to reach an agreement, despite McCully’s fears that the IWC is presiding over a return of “anarchy” to the high seas.

Representatives from Te Ohu Kaimoana, the Maori Fisheries Trust, praised the efforts of McCully and Palmer to broker a deal between polarised factions. In particular, the Trust’s Chief Executive Peter Douglas leveled criticism at so-called, “recalcitrant anti-whaling members who refused to move from their unreasonable and unacceptable position of an immediate and complete cessation of whaling”. While clearly a question of strategy, a united multilateral consensus of 85 countries (out of 88) that opposed continuing whaling activities doesn’t seem too absurd a position. Surely the pressure of such a coalition of countries carries with it heavy political ramifications in and of itself. The only real advantage from compromise would be a short-term pecuniary interest, an area the Trust’s representation doesn’t mind discussing. Ngahiwi Tomoana, the trust’s chairman stridently opposes, “wealthy, non-government green, organisations” whose commercial interest lies in the “continued dysfunction” of the IWC. While the commercial might of environmental groups seems to me somewhat unreal, Tomoana reveals how, “…NGOs have worked to keep indigenous whaling peoples in an 18th Century subsistence category. It is time to recognise there are two types of whaling”, Tomoana believes, “sustainable whaling based on science and unsustainable, unregulated and unreported whaling. Te Ohu Kaimoana supports the former and opposes the latter.”

The failure of the IWC to come to an agreement to stop commercial whaling should come as no surprise, considering the IWC’s raison d’être, to “…provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.” More interesting is the language of the Maori Fisheries Trust promoting their new approach. In particular, they invoke an objective “science”, a superior mode of knowledge that renders subjective political viewpoints unscientific; science can rationalise anything since it is objectively verifiable. According to this logic it is not only scientifically acceptable to engage in certain scientific whaling activities, it’s economically absurd not to. Despite public guarantees not to appropriate Maori fisheries money for commercial whaling, the Trust has previously hosted commercial whaling organisations and presented papers over the trade in whale. The NZ government’s position on whale conservation seems to be vacillating, and the acceptance of limited commercial whaling was communicated to the public in a NZ Herald editorial in March this year, promising, “a new way of Saving the Whales…” that allowed commercial whaling in small measure.

The Trust has used this strategy to discredit opposition to the funneling of NZ money into whaling activities. In September 2009, Douglas published an op-ed in the NZ Herald that threw out a ‘no-nonsense’ response to those “extreme elements of the conservation movement” whose agitation over depleting marine life suggested it was perhaps “…simpler to vilify those you wish to draw in simplistic terms as rapers and pillagers of the sea. Perhaps it’s easier to ignore the science that doesn’t suit you, and play to emotions and ignorance.” Science appears again in the piece as a rhetorical device, with Douglas proclaiming, “We do need better science and more of it.” Here, “science” is treated as a non-contestable universal domain, perhaps on a scale of zero to the Platonic ideal “peak science” (I dread the day…), something we are always blindly struggling towards. The mention of science alone raises the argument to a position of ideology, indicating a degree of objectivity and individually verifiability. Interestingly the only scientific evidence cited by Douglas is an article published in Nature that places NZ among the countries least-threatened by overfishing. A brief review of the report reveals that NZ’s coveted position means that only a tenth of our marine life is in serious danger at the moment; take what you want from this statement, to me it seems a bit premature to celebrate the threatening of a tenth of the regional marine biosphere.

Regardless of how scientific, whale slaughter remains whale slaughter, and for New Zealand to walk away from its abolitionist position at the multilateral bargaining table could spark major fragmentation within the IWC, the anarchy that McCully so feared. And anarchy is very unscientific. The IWC’s ethos has always been rooted in the regulated commodification of nature and its collapse could lead to some new more efficient bargaining machinery, although at this stage the outcome is unclear. Either way, our own government’s position must be carefully monitored, lest it become the quiescent pawn of private capital.

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