Feeding Our Fish Habit: Stop Picking on Whales | Civil Eats

Feeding Our Fish Habit: Stop Picking on Whales

whalepreview

It seems to be hardwired into the human psyche, the inclination to shout “It’s not my fault!” at the first sign of accusations. And we all know that the louder and the more frequent our declarations, the more likely it is that we actually are to blame.

Thus it goes with fisheries around the world – constantly looking for a scapegoat to blame for the decline of their fish stocks. Or in this case a “Scape-Whale.”

Much to my surprise, there has been a scientific debate raging for decades about the role that whales play in depleting fish populations. The argument goes like this: whales eat fish, therefore we should kill whales to protect the fish.  And then get to eat the whales, too.

The push for this “culling” practice (the scientific term for the ‘selection’ (removing or killing) of surplus animals from an animal population) has largely come from Japan. The Japanese whaling industry, along with members from Iceland and Norway, have been increasing the pressure to support whaling as a way to improve fish populations.

In a 2004 National Geographic article, a Japanese Fisheries Agency spokesperson “said that whales eat at least ten target species hunted by people, including Japanese anchovy and Pacific saury.” But biologist Peter Corkeron with the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research responded:

“The bottom line is that we are exploiting the oceans’ resources more and more.  It’s almost a no-brainer that eventually someone will point the finger at other species that are using the same resources.”

The good news for whales is that a recent study published in the journal Science proves the “whale = bad” argument is spurious.

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Arizona State University scientist Leah Gerber and co-authors demonstrate that the impact of whales is small compared to human fishing patterns. Data from the Caribbean and North African locations demonstrate that the impact on fisheries caused by human behavior is hundreds of times greater than the fish consumed by whales.

The paper makes several recommendations; including taking into account the “indirect social and economic benefits of whales” – that is tourism. They also recommend that “despite complicated politics, science should be an integral component of the discussions about managing whale and fish interactions.” (Read: up until now, science has been absent.)  Finally, they recommend managing marine ecosystems based on long-term sustainability, rather than the goal of short term fishery yield as is often currently the case.

In his superlative book The End of The Line, author Charles Clover finds evidence of this “It’s not my fault” syndrome throughout the worldwide fishing industry.  Moving forward, the paper makes a convincing case that we need to take responsibility for the impacts we are having on the oceans – as individuals, as nations, and as a species.


ASU’s Leah Gerber on fisheries

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Photo: Arizona Board of Regents, humpback whale swimming through the ocean

Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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