Science, Whaling, and International Conservation

In his new book, Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas, Kurkpatrick Dorsey details international efforts to create a regulatory framework that would support a sustainable whaling industry. Although those efforts ultimately failed, Dorsey illuminates the implications and lessons learned from that failure for current international conservation and sustainability efforts. In this guest post, Dorsey draws parallels between the lack of scientific consensus in debates about climate change and the international whaling industry.

I suppose that if I were a newspaper editor, I would be thankful for climate change, whether or not I owned beachfront property. For the last few weeks, a lively debate on the subject has been running in my local paper, Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, New Hampshire. Climate change has been the subject of syndicated columns, letters to the editor, and even editorial cartoons. Most interesting was a debate between two area men with claims to expertise, which has been evolving through community commentary to letters to the editor to a head-to-head pairing of articles, followed by more letters. The most fascinating debating point was whether or not a consensus actually exists among climate scientists that people are contributing to changing the earth’s climate. In other words, is the scientific community really that certain about climate change?

Beyond the obvious ecological, economic, and political importance of the debate about climate change, I am struck by the parallels to a similar debate about whaling in the 1950s. The whaling industry in the last century made most of its money hunting blue whales, the largest animal ever, to use their oil to make margarine. After World War II, it became apparent that blue whales could no longer sustain the industry, which turned to fin whales, the second largest animal ever.

The floating factory Thorshammer, with rendering underway and at least six whales awaiting processing, undated. New Bedford Whaling Museum, Photo 2000.101.29.47

The floating factory Thorshammer, with rendering underway and at least six whales awaiting processing, undated. New Bedford Whaling Museum, Photo 2000.101.29.47

Cetology, the science of whales, was still primitive enough that there were huge gaps even in basic information, such as how many fin whales still lived, how fast they reproduced, and when they were old enough to reproduce, all of which would be really useful for deciding how many fin whales could be killed sustainably. And the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was in the business of deciding how many whales could be killed. The IWC set a global quota in Blue Whale Units, but since there were so few blue whales left, everyone understood that it was basically setting a quota on fin whales. It was supposed to use scientific knowledge to frame such decisions. The commission’s scientific committee had reams of data about whale catches, number of vessels hunting whales, and the age and sex of the whales caught, but it would be fair to say that what it did not know was more important.

Throughout the 1950s, the majority of scientists affiliated with the commission were certain that fin whale populations could not sustain the level of hunting the IWC permitted. Dutch scientists, with access to the same data, consistently refuted the idea that fin whales were in decline. As early as 1953, they argued that “there is no sufficient scientific evidence” to justify restricting the catch. A shrewd diplomat from New Zealand concluded that the Dutch position would be firm “until their whaling expedition has been sold,” which was remarkably accurate. Given the structure of the commission, which effectively required unanimity, Dutch opposition to reducing the catch was sufficient to trump the scientific consensus. The consequences for fin whales were exactly what the majority of scientists feared, a steep decline in population and eventually a ban on hunting to save the remnant.

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A common way for people to encounter whales today: a humpback whale calf breaches off the coach of New Hampshire, 2012. Courtesy of Len Medlock.

The similarities to the modern debate about climate change are evident, but one key difference is most interesting to me. The Dutch defended their position as vigorously as the climate change skeptics do today, and likewise they offered any number of alternative theories to explain why there were inarguably fewer fin whales being harvested. But one thing they did not do was smear the reputations of their opponents, even as they themselves must have been aware of some of the eyebrows shooting up whenever they spoke. They did not argue that their opponents were perpetrating a hoax or attempting to change the basis of the whaling industry. Nor was the data in dispute. The stakes are certainly much higher in today’s debates, which helps to explain their tone. And yet the principles at stake are much the same—if we are going to look to science to provide guidance in setting policy on issues dealing with natural resources of all sorts, we can only follow the conclusions that most scientists find convincing, even as we accept the risk that sometimes that dominant idea is wrong.

Kurkpatrick Dorsey is associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire.

“This important book is essential for understanding the formation of the first global environmental agreements. It is valuable both as an argument about the failures of sustainability and as an authoritative guide to the people and issues behind the rise of global environmental awareness in the twentieth century.” -Jacob Darwin Hamblin, author of Arming Mother Nature

“The international politics of whaling underwent seismic shifts over the course of the twentieth century, reflecting complex changes in attitudes toward marine mammals and environmental protection worldwide. This important story has never been better told than in Kurkpatrick Dorsey’s new book, which is likely to be the standard work on this subject for a long time to come.” -William Cronon

For more on the how scientific debates impact contemporary environmental issues, check out Joshua Howe’s forthcoming book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming.

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