Whaling Nations Blame Whales for Fish Declines

John Pickrell in England
for National Geographic News
June 22, 2004

In nations such as Japan, Norway, and Iceland, whales are increasingly regarded as a pests competing with rapidly dwindling fisheries. The change in perception could have important implications for how whales are protected and their populations managed, according to a recent research article.

Despite the international moratorium on whaling agreed to by most governments in 1986, a handful of nations with a long history of whaling continue to hunt the marine mammals for research projects—and meat.

"To nations with whalers, or to those currently reviving whaling, whales are no longer natural resources to be managed sustainably, but are competitors for fisheries," said the author of the article, conservation biologist Peter Corkeron of the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research in Tromsoe.

Culls in Sight?

The governments of Japan and Norway now claim that species such as the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) have rebounded to such numbers that they are a factor behind plummeting populations of fish hunted for human consumption the world over. The WWF last month said the global cod catch had dropped by 70 percent in the last 30 years and that cod could disappear completely within another 15 years if the trend continues.

"The logical extension of this idea is that whales should not be allowed to recover to environmental carrying capacity, but rather are in need of culling in the name of ecosystem management," Corkeron said.

He points to the example of how seal populations are managed in some North Atlantic nations as one possible scenario for the future control of whales—Canada allowed the culling of 350,000 seals earlier this year in a move it claimed was necessary to protect commercial fish stocks.

"As our impact on the oceans grows and fish disappear, our perception of how to share the reduced wealth of the oceans with whales is changing," Corkeron wrote in his in his article, which was published in the June edition of the science journal Conservation Biology. The article also called for debate in the scientific community on how whales are used as conservation icons and whether whale watching has a negative effect on the animals and the environment.

On May 18 of this year, Norway's parliament passed a resolution calling for a threefold increase in the hunting quota for minke whales, to preserve cod and other prey for fishers. A Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries report claimed that 5.5 million tons of fish are eaten by marine mammals in Norwegian waters, compared with just 2.74 million tons taken by Norwegian fisheries in 2002. "This indicates the competition between humans and marine mammals, which must be given considerable weight in managing these species," the report said.

Similarly, in February, Japan's delegation to a United Nation's fisheries meeting in Rome claimed that Japan's scientific whaling program in the North Pacific has revealed that whales are a significant competitor for fish stocks.

A Japanese Fisheries Agency spokesperson said that whales eat at least ten target species hunted by people, including Japanese anchovy and Pacific saury. Other figures suggested that whales and dolphins worldwide consume 300 to 500 million tons of marine food annually—three to six times the amount fished for total human consumption.

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