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All History of US Environmental Policy

Week 1: Resource systems

  • Resource system: global oceans (both High Seas + EEZs)
  • Resource units: whales
  • Resource users: commercial whalers
  • Governance systems: International Whaling Commission & more

The International Whaling Commission is the primary governance body in charge of conserving and managing whale populations and habitats. It was created by the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling in 1946, and now has 88 member countries. In addition, the Antarctic Treaty System specified in the Treaty of 1959 that “the area south of 60° South Latitude”—Antarctica and surrounding waters, which includes significant whale habitat—would be governed by international cooperation. (The participants meet yearly, in Australia.) Since 1982, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) oversees the conservation of Antarctic marine life and managing fisheries. At the national level, many countries have government organizations with relevant purview, notably Japan.

One relevant metric is the “Blue Whale Unit,” an absurd unit of measurement originating from whaling cartels later used by the International Whaling Commission. It measures quotas of whales through ratios of various species, which 1 blue whale being “equivalent” to whaling 2-6 other types of whales, based on (incomplete) observations of population.

In the early days of whaling, plentiful whale sitings allowed whalers to assume the population to be near-infinite. Throughout the twentieth century, whales were brought near total extinction, killing an estimated five million whales, with individual expeditions killing as many as 25k. Soviet sailors would be under NDAs to the KGB to preserve secrecy of the true numbers. As the populations dwindled, the IWC was established, but member states falsified records by orders of magnitude and publicly lied. For instance, the Soviet Union would kill 50k+ but report 5k whales. These lies were accepted as public record until NOAA scientist Bob Brownell uncovered tens of thousands of records from Soviet scientists (stored in potato cellars) in the early 1990s.

Whaling is a difficult ecological issue to pin down, with difficult-to-monitor second-level variables including whale populations across species and migration along massive distances.

In many ways, we have reached sustained use: whale populations have bounced back since the near-collapse in the 1970s. (One notable fact: recreational whale-watching draws billions more in tourism revenue in New Zealand than the whaling market did, including supporting indigenous livelihoods.) The majority of countries have not engaged in commercial whaling for decades. Unfortunately, Japan resumed commercial whaling in July 2019, and has been seen whaling in their exclusive economic zone. While the catch numbers reported on their government website appear small, to this day, Japan has never shared their records from whaling’s peak, and experts continue to piece together guesses to understand the full story.

Source: The Witness Is a Whale, 2022 documentary