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August 20, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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New Zealand and Whales: A Deep Dive

In June, a lone southern right whale visited Wellington Harbour. We named him Matariki, and scores of people flocked to the waterfront, and later the South Wellington coast, to catch a glimpse. We even postponed the fireworks because we didn’t want to frighten him. But we haven’t always been so protective of whales. We used to commercially hunt them, right up until 1964.
The commercial whaling industry in Aotearoa began in the 1790s. It was the first instance of Western trade, as American whaling ships flocked to exploit the abundant whale population. The industry employed both Europeans and Māori, although Māori had no existing custom of hunting whales. As the industry grew, permanent whaling stations were established on the coast around Otago, Marlborough, Kāpiti, and the Hauraki Gulf to exploit the migration routes of southern right, humpback, and sperm whales.
Whalers would wait ashore to spot a whale, and chase after in their rowboats and harpoon their target. Whales were hunted for their oil, which was used to make soap and margarine, as well as lighting lamps and lubricating machinery. The meat was sold as dog food.

Although the number of permanent coastal whaling stations declined into the 20th century, advances in technology meant it was still viable industry. The most successful whaling station was on Arapara Island in the Tory Channel of Marlborough Sounds. Established in 1924 by Joseph Perano, the station was the first to use a motor boat to chase after humpback whales. Around 50 families lived there during the whaling season in winter. Although Perano Station was the relative powerhouse of the industry, their catch was actually quite small. There were never more than 3 whales caught per day, because the processing plant on the island lacked the capability for greater numbers. Former whalers say they never caught mother and calves either, as their jobs depended on a sustainable population. Whaling was so important that men employed in the industry were exempt from serving in WWII.
However, in the post-WWII era, the humpback whale population began to decline. Perano Station whalers began to hunt sperm whales instead, but this was difficult as the whales were in deeper waters further afield in Kaikoura and Cape Palliser. In addition to the dramatic decline in whale numbers, the demand for whale products also dropped. Kerosene could be used to light lamps, or even better, electricity. Whale oil made very smelly soap, so it was only used for industrial cleaning. Vegetable oil was developed to make a nicer, non-smelly margarine. On 21 December 1964 the last whale was caught in the Tory Channel. It was no longer a commercially feasible industry.

But why had the whale population declined so dramatically? Was it all the whales we killed from New Zealand? It was only in the 1990s that marine biologists discovered that the whale population in the Southern Ocean had dropped dramatically in the ‘60s after rampant overfishing by vessels from the USSR. In the 1959-1960 season, the USSR killed approximately 13,000 humpback whales. Soviet catcher ships would sail in a line formation to efficiently trap and kill the greatest number of whales. The carcasses would be taken to factory ships for processing, although it is estimated that only 30% of the whale would be used. Strangely, this unprecedented slaughter was compelled by rapidly rising quotas imposed by the USSR State Planning Committee, rather than any real market demand for whales.
During the 1970s, whales had become a focal point for global conservation. Organisations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd drew attention to the declining whale population. Popular TV shows like Flipper and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau endeared marine life to the public on an unprecedented scale. In Australia — where a similar sized industry involving a handful a coastal whaling stations operated — commercial whaling was banned by the government in 1978 after public outcry. Similarly, in 1978 whaling was officially prohibited in New Zealand under the Marine Mammals Protection Act.
By the 1980s, NZ had become a staunch anti-whaling advocate on the world stage. NZ was a founding member of the International Commission for Whaling, an organisation established in 1946 to regulate commercial whaling in response to the dwindling population. Over time, the focus of the anti-whaling nations shifted from sustainable regulation to an all-out ban, and in 1982 the IWC voted to establish a moratorium on commercial whaling of large and medium whales. There are exceptions in the ban for sustenance hunting for indigenous peoples (for example indigenous peoples in Alaska are allowed to kill a small number of whales a year to fulfill their cultural practises). Norway and Iceland have registered their objections to the moratorium and continue to hunt whales. In 1986, Japan began a lethal research programme conducted by the Institute of Cetacean Research, who argue the programme is justified under a provision in the Schedule. In practice, the meat from the whales killed is sold for human consumption.
New Zealand has vociferously opposed the Japanese lethal research program as a matter of foreign policy. In 2010 New Zealand supported Australia’s action against Japan in the International Court of Justice for breaching the International Convention on Whaling Regulations. Former Attorney-General Chris Finlayson appeared as an advocate during the hearing, and in 2014 the Court released a judgment finding the lethal research breached Japan’s obligations as signatory to the Schedule. However, the Institute of Cetacean Research continues to pursue their whaling policies, and during the 2017 whaling season killed 333 Antarctic minke whales.
New Zealand’s position on commercial whales has changed dramatically in the space of 50 years. A formerly thriving industry quietly languished in the 1960s due to a falling whale population, not the typical whale activism we are familiar with today. It’s arguable that we didn’t have enough facts to compel us into action. The IWC was founded with a sustainable management purpose, because the true extent of the whale population was unknown. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the IWC commissioned more thorough studies to accurately measure whale populations. This task was somewhat thwarted by the USSR destroying accurate records of their catch. By the 1980s, a total ban was deemed the only option left to save the whales.
Now New Zealand is a vocal anti-whaling advocate on the world stage, campaigning for strong protectionist policies. We’ve taken whaling nations to the International Court of Justice, and sent our legal and political heavyweights to advocate for the cause.
And the whalers of Perano Station? They now assist the Department of Conservation in their annual whale population survey, putting their whale spotting skills to good use.

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