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Re-telling the Soviet harpoon race

Richard Black | 14:12 UK time, Tuesday, 9 June 2009

This is my first entry for a few weeks, and I'm wondering if it's appropriate to make some awful pun about being "back on the blog"... ok, too late, done it already. Sorry.

The blog stayed blank during the earthquake project I was on in Japan, which was fascinating but slightly away from the core environmental agenda.

Watching the Earth it certainly was; but perhaps not appropriate for Earth Watch.

Harpoon explodingIt's impossible for me to go to Japan without thoughts turning to whaling - and with the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) just a couple of weeks away, it's a good time of year for those thoughts to surface.

One of the reasons why I find the issue so interesting is that it throws up so many "what if?" questions.

Many of them surround the whaling moratorium - called for in 1972, voted through in 1982 and implemented in 1986.

One of the key arguments mustered for the moratorium was that whale numbers did not appear to be recovering, even on species and in regions where protection measures had been put in place.

By the 1960s, hunting for blue whales and humpbacks, for example, was banned in large expanses of the oceans.

But time after time in records of IWC meetings from that period you come across phrases such as "it seemed that there was some rebuilding of humpback stocks in the North-west Atlantic but there was nothing to suggest any substantial increase elsewhere in the North Atlantic", followed by a recommendation to extend the existing protection for a further three or five years and see what happened.

The sense of heads being scratched is almost palpable.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, the reason why these protection measures weren't working became startlingly clear. The Soviet fleets, which included the biggest factory ships ever built, had been working to a radically different plan - to kill just about every whale they encountered, irrespective of size, species or rarity, and lie about it.

Since Alexey Yablokov first spilled the beans in 1993, the story has been told and re-told, the real catch records (kept secret and not submitted to the IWC, ironically chaired by a Soviet, MN Sukhoruchenko, during some of the years when the apparent ineffectiveness of protection regimes was being discussed) have been dissected and analysed.

But rarely has it been told as well as it has this week, in an article [pdf link] by Phil Clapham and Yulia Ivashchenko in Marine Fisheries Review, the US journal. If you're not familiar with the story, reading their article will be 15 minutes of your time well spent; if you are familiar with it, well, it's worth a read anyway.

Clapham and Ivashchenko are among the scientists whose work has documented the true scale of the Soviet abuses. Between 1947, when whaling re-started after World War II, and 1973, their fleets killed more than 100,000 whales secretly and - by the terms of their IWC membership - illegally.

Nikita KhruschevSome scientists had suspicions about Soviet abuses at the time. But Dr Sukhoruchenko and his colleagues repeatedly batted away calls to place genuinely independent inspectors on ships, so no-one saw it happening.

(This, by the way, makes it almost inevitable that if anti-whaling countries are ever minded to approve the commercial or quasi-commercial coastal whaling quotas now being sought by Japan, they will insist on having independent and adequately empowered observers on the catcher boats.)

The biggest "what if?" question thrown up by the illegal whaling is what would have happened if the Soviets had not treated the oceans as a birthdaying kid treats open evening in a sweet shop.

Their hauls depleted the waters usually exploited by whaling stations in Australia and New Zealand, forcing them to close. Without those closures, would those two nations have moved so swiftly and so vociferously into the anti-whaling camp?

On a larger canvas, if the IWC's protection measures had worked as planned and re-built species such as blues and humpbacks, how would IWC members and the larger global community have reacted?

Would the moratorium call have been made - and if so, would it have been heeded? Would environmental groups have gained the traction they did if whale numbers had demonstrably been recovering?

Would whaling countries have sought to expand their quotas to the limit, or been content to remain at levels that would guarantee a continuing recovery, in a market that by now was largely driven by whalemeat rather than by oil or - from an earlier era - baleen?

These are, of course, imponderables; and doubtless veterans of the era will give varying answers depending on their recollections and their positions.

But it is entirely possible to argue that the illegal Soviet catches created a false impression of the ecological impact of legal whaling, and in doing so made the moratorium calls irresistible. Now, with proper protection in place, blue whales and humpbacks are recovering well - as they should have done 40 years ago.

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