I’ve had this argument a few times and I always seem to end up on the losing side. In starting to write this I have a sense, already, that I’m not going to influence many people. It’s such a contentious subject that the merits of logic and common sense seem not to apply in the usual way but, in the spirit of persistence (or hole digging), I’ll give it another go. To be clear at the outset, this is intended as a discussion of the issues around the rearing of domestic livestock rather than a suggestion that we should revive the UK’s whaling industry.
There are three main arguments used by those opposed to whaling. The first is that we are dealing with such highly intelligent animals that, as with the great apes, it is simply wrong for us to kill them. I can see how that argument might apply to the highly social dolphins and the toothed whales but I’m not sure it’s very convincing for baleen whales like the Minke. Assessing intelligence is notoriously difficult and, to some extent, subjective. Baleen whales do score highly but then so do pigs and other species that are killed and consumed with impunity. In some ways baleen whales mirror the behaviour of the terrestrial grazing animals that we are so fond of eating in the way they endlessly sift and strain tiny food items from the ocean.
Then there is the question of the level of cruelty involved in killing whales. It’s difficult to get to the truth of the matter and doubtless there is exaggeration on both sides of the argument. Clearly some suffering is involved so it’s a valid concern. But I’d be amazed if the overall levels of suffering per pound of flesh were not very much higher for the majority of domestic livestock, taking into account all elements of the production process, through to eventual slaughter.
Species that breed as slowly as whales are highly vulnerable to over-exploitation. It may be that for the largest species such as Fin and Blue Whales any level of exploitation would risk harming populations; killing them is not dissimilar to mining. But, for the smaller species, there will be a level at which they could be exploited sustainably even if that is a very low level. Of course, there are also very serious sustainability issues with the production of domestic livestock, including the destruction of vast areas of pristine wildlife habitat to accommodate them, or the crops required to feed them. Whilst there is at least room for rational debate about the sustainability of low-level whaling, the same does not apply to most livestock farming systems.
All of these points draw comparisons between whales and domestic livestock. If you are vegetarian they will be largely irrelevant. But based on concerns about animal welfare, sustainability and wildlife conservation I’m not sure it’s tenable to visit Burger King on a regular basis whilst maintaining a logically-based opposition to all forms of whaling. I would suggest that hamburgers seem more acceptable than whaleburgers only because our supermarkets and restaurants are full of them. We have got used to eating them and are well-practiced at turning a blind eye to the environmental consequences inherent in their production. As with many difficult issues, the human brain appears to automatically favour long-established practices over logical arguments.
There are some parallels with the contentious debate about kangaroo meat. This is available almost exclusively as a by-product of pest control in Australia. Some in that part of the world see it as one of the few sources of sustainable meat and there is even a new word, ‘kangatarian’ (I kid you not), for people who have given up meat for ethical reasons but make an exception for kangaroo. In contrast, Australian animal welfare groups object to it because it involves the culling of wild animal populations and is perceived as cruel. We end up with the bizarre situation where kangaroo is simultaneously regarded as the only ethical meat, and one worthy of vigorous (and sometimes successful) campaigns to stop it from being sold. In Britain we also have the option of meat from culled deer, with the added bonus to consumers that they are doing their bit to help limit the impacts of non-native species. Yet, there are many people who are very happy with their pork chops but would think twice before buying venison.