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Of whales and men

Is Japan’s decision to leave the International Whaling Commission really that big a deal?

When Down To Earth first contacted me to write about the news that Japan shall exit the IWC (International Whaling Commission) and shall resume hunting whales in their coastal waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (4,479,358 sq km) from June 30, 2019, I wondered if I should take it up—challenge my personal stand on the matter, or just to let it go. I decided to put my mind to paper, to understand Japan’s move from different perceptions and different times in history.

There is always more than one story, and if we review the matter over time, we realise we are actually witnessing human history—the spread and growth of civilizations as the utilisation of natural resources was discovered; emergence of knowledge systems and ideas of morality; evolving human ethics; changing paradigms of economic development; and finally the shifting of power structures in international affairs and politics. There are various human players here: international treaties and national interests; nations and communities; scientists and politicians; hunters and conservationists; sustenance and industrialisation. They are all playing eventually for gaining control over finite natural resources. In this case, this resource is the humble whale.

The first-ever mention of whale oil, extracted from the subcutaneous layer of fat called blubber comes from 1059 BC, when the Basques of Iberia explored its uses. From that time till the mid 19th century (1857-1859), whale oil became the source of illumination (candles, lamps) worldwide, and also fueled the start of the Industrial Revolution. There were other uses, such as the use of whalebone in making corsets; but the primary value was in oil and meat.

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