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Sentient whales should be treated ethically

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11 July 2011 in
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This is the message OneKind and the rest of the Whalewatch coalition are sending to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which is meeting in Jersey this week to discuss the future management of the world’s remaining whales and tackle controversial issues such as whaling by indigenous peoples, reforms to prevent ‘votes for cash’ allegations and calls for greater openness and accountability.

Commercial whaling has been banned for more than twenty years. But some countries – like Norway, Japan and Iceland  – continue to hunt whales Their meat is then sold commercially for human consumption. This means around 2,500 whales are still killed every year in cruel and unnecessary hunts that cause intense pain and distress.

Whales can suffer for up to an hour before they succumb to the harpoons and rifles of the hunters. All available evidence tells us there is no way to hunt and kill whales at sea without causing acute suffering.

For these reasons we believe that the International Whaling Commission has a duty to progress animal welfare and ethics in its policies and decisons. So, in recent weeks we have been informing Commissioners about a new report of the ‘Whale Welfare and Ethics Workshop’. The UK Government proposed the workshop at the last IWC meeting and it was welcomed and encouraged by many other governments.  

The Workshop brought together over 30 international experts in the fields of animal welfare, ethics, and marine mammals. The resulting conclusions and recommendations provide a highly credible foundation for the Commission to update and improve its approach to the management of animal welfare and ethics.

In a joint letter to Commissioners, we said: “The recommendations, if adopted, could enable the Commission to implement a more scientific and objective approach to decision making incorporating animal welfare concerns, as is practised in many other multilateral environmental agreements. For example the introduction of an ethics review committee, would allow the Commission to more effectively address and reach agreement over divisive issues.”

Our calls for change are based on the fact that whales are sentient creatures. In an appendix to the report, Evidence for Awareness in Whales, Roger Payne from Ocean Alliance explains the case for sentience in whales.

He concludes: “ All that I have described of the capabilities of cetaceans, from songs that change and include rhyme, self-awareness of a song as a vocal performance, tool use, social facilitation and culture, experimental tests measuring the ability to understand words and syntax in a gestural language, the presence in cetacean brains of spindle cells (otherwise known only in elephants and primates, including humans)…all of these argue forcefully that cetaceans are conscious, self-aware, and can plan, meaning that they are rational beings whose rights we, as rational beings, should respect.”

With no option for humane slaughter, OneKind and the rest of the Whalewatch coalition, which is coordinated by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, are calling for an end to all commercial whaling. Until such a time, progress must be made to view and treat whales more ethically.

Our calls will be strengthened by the growing evidence of whales’ sentience. We now know that cetaceans such as whales are self-aware, have social cultures and show some of the most complex behaviour in the animal kingdom. Yet we still have so much to learn about them - their behaviour, intelligence and social lives under the waves. By gaining more insight into the capacities of whales and their complex lives we can better understand the full impacts of the hunts on them and strengthen our calls for an end to the killing of all whales.

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