Economics, Natural resource management, Politics

32 -Australia’s position on whaling

A Perth taxi driver last week was telling me about his holidays in Albany in the days before they closed the whaling station in 1978. The shutdown was historically significant, because it was the last operating station in Australia.

My driver recounted his vivid memories of the numerous huge sharks that would take great bites out of the whale carcasses before the whalers could get them out of the water, sometimes managing to get through more than half a whale. These were massive sperm whales, so clearly the sharks were large and numerous. The whaling station employed sharpshooter shark shooters, who would take pot shots from the shore. The dead sharks would not only leave the whales alone but would become shark food themselves, distracting some of the other sharks, at least for a while. Imagine how many crazed sharks there were wandering just off the swimming beaches of Albany in those days.

These days Australia is one of the good guys in the international community when it comes to whaling. (It must be one of the few areas where we still are good guys.) One of the first public statements of new environment minister, Senator Ian Campbell, was about whaling.

“Australia is at the forefront of international moves to put a total end to commercial whaling. Our attack at the moment is to expose the fraud of commercial whaling under the guise of scientific whaling. What I want the people of the world to know is that between Japan, Norway and Iceland, they will destroy, in the next twelve months, the same number of whales that it has taken Australia 25 years to see rehabilitated, coming down the east coast.” (Senator Ian Campbell, ABC Radio National, the AM program, 22 July 2004).

Australia wasn’t always so whale-friendly. Many Australians don’t realise that the end to whaling in Australia in 1978 did not actually occur as a result of a policy decision, but rather as a result of declining economics due to over-whaling. The commercial decision to close the last whaling station was made during a national review of whaling, which ultimately led to a ban in 1979. That was hardly a courageous decision when all whaling had actually ceased by then.

Overall, the ban was politically popular. Protests against the whaling had been gaining pace. You can get a feel for them in Tim Winton’s novel “Shallows”, which is set in Albany at that time.

Interestingly, the idea of a ban was bitterly opposed by the Western Australian government led by premier Charles Court. I don’t know what he intended to achieve by opposing it, since the economics of whaling had evaporated along with the whales.

It wasn’t the first time that whaling had faded out. By about 1900 a once-thriving whaling industry had declined greatly due to over-exploitation. They waited a little while, started again after switching focus from right whales to humpbacks, exhausted stocks again and imposed a 10-year moratorium in 1939. As soon as the moratorium was over, they got going again! Here’s an edited extract from a history that describes the rapid growth of whaling in the 1950s.

Australian shore-based whaling was revived in July 1949, when the Nor’-West Whaling Company reopened the old “Norwegian Bay” station at Point Cloates (WA). The Commonwealth Government had meanwhile become interested in whaling, and constituted the Australian Whaling Commission, which built a new shore station on Babbage Island, near Carnarvon, in Western Australia, and commenced whaling in September 1950. In 1952 the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company commenced operations at Albany. Post-war whaling also developed on the east coast of Australia, a new shore station built on Moreton Island, Queensland, opened in June 1952, while another at Byron Bay, New South Wales, opened in July 1954. Whaling was also revived at Norfolk Island in August 1956.

So, not many generations of whales ago, we were killing them like there was no tomorrow (which was sort of true for the whales). We are complaining about the fraudulent “scientific” whaling of a few hundred relatively common Minke whales by Japan, but not so long ago we were killing vast numbers of the much rarer humpback whales. In the west, 12,000 were killed between 1936 and 1938 and another 18,000 between 1949 and 1963. The population in the west was reduced to about 800 whales. The station at Albany actually had to switch to hunting sperm whales to continue in business.
Similarly, along the east coast between 1950 and 1962 nearly 12,500 humpbacks were killed and processed. It was estimated that there were between 200 and 500 humpbacks left there in 1962. The stations had to stop yet again because there was nothing left to catch!

It isn’t all that hard to see whales in Australian waters these days, but imagine what it must have been like in pre-colonial times.

I’m glad we did ban whaling. We might look like hypocrites, with the zeal of recently reformed smokers, but it was still the right thing to do. Nevertheless, the way it happened reflects the weakness of governments in taking concerted conservation action in the face of economic interests, even when those economic interests are in the process of destroying the natural resource that sustains them.

And of course nothing much has really changed. In conservation policies today, the short-term, populist approach still dominates a more effective long-term policy. I met with some Commonwealth government agency people the other day and was told (again) that the Ministers require the bulk of money from the national salinity policy to be spent on on-ground works, even though we know that many of the expensive works being planned around the country will achieve little or nothing against salinity. It’s so much more politically appealing to spend money on something tangible that involves giving handouts to many voters than to make more selective or longer-term but less direct investments that could ultimately make a real difference.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Dakin, W.J. (1962). Whalemen Adventurers,

Pannell, D.J. (2005). Politics and dryland salinity, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 45: 1471-1480. Full paper (63K) Summary version (19K)