The Ecologist October 1971: The extinction of whales?

Front cover the Ecologist October 1970
Forty years ago this month, Scott McVay predicted the impending extinction of many species of whales. Does the threat remain today, or has the battle been won?

The anti-whaling campaign was one of the causes that helped to launch the environmental movement in the 1970s, so it is hardly a surprise to find a lengthy analysis of whaling in the Ecologist’s pages from forty years ago this month.

At the time there was a genuine concern that whale populations might be fished until extinction. International divides on the issue of whaling were so strong that McVay wrote that even a ten year moratorium on whale-hunting seemed ‘beyond the capacities for cooperation and restraint of the nations present at the International Whaling Convention Meeting’.

Despite Mcvay’s prediction, a moratorium was passed by the International Whaling Commission in 1982. Even though this has been largely ignored or circumvented by a few nations including Japan, Norway and Iceland, annual worldwide catches of whales have declined from around 40,000 in the early 1970s to about 2,000 today. The moratorium has helped to ensure that threat of extinction has rescinded for many species of whales.

Hunting of the fin whale, however, continues despite its status as an endangered species. Iceland has faced mounting international pressure to cease its pursuit of fin whales; earlier this year the Ecologist reported the alarming revelation that much of the cod used for ‘fish and chips’ throughout the UK is provided by Icelandic companies associated with Iceland's biggest whaling company, Hvalur.

Today, the unavoidable cruelty of the methods used in whaling and the extreme intelligence of these creatures are cited in arguments against whaling. In 1971, less was known about these two factors, yet already this was changing. Mcvay wrote that recordings of whales singing had been played to the International Whaling Commission for the first time the previous year, showing them the majestic beauty and advanced communication skills of these magnificent creatures.

Although compassion for the plight of whales and the work of governments and NGOs such as the Sea Sheppard Conservation Society have played a part in bringing a halt to whaling, the end of whaling, particularly in Japan, might finally be brought about by its own declining economic profitability.

Forty years on therefore, although there remains much to be done to combat the ongoing practise of whaling, the picture looks far less bleak than when Scott Mcvay asked, 'Can Leviathan endure so long a chase'.

Read the original polemic here


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