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Whale Wars Do harpooned whales suffer?

posted: 05/15/12
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Animal Planet cameras document Japanese whalers harvesting a minke whale during the 2008/2009 whaling season in Antarctica. According to Sea Shepherd volunteers, whales can apparently scream and do so when they're harpooned, loudly and at length. Sea Shepherd claims it took roughly 25 minutes for this whale to die.
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This question basically comes down to whether animals can feel pain, and at this point, many experts agree that they can. Although the issue will likely remain mired in controversy due to fundamental issues of anthropomorphism, a lack of verbally confirmable evidence and uncertainties regarding animal consciousness, researchers have repeatedly uncovered some pretty compelling evidence pointing toward yes.

A Brief History of Harpoons

Back in the old days of whaling, a harpoon was essentially a pointy spear attached to a rope. Fishermen chucked their harpoons at various ocean prey, in order to stab them and haul them up out of the water. Pretty basic.

Nowadays, though, things are quite a bit more high-tech. As popular whale species declined under extreme whaling pressure, new methods had to be devised to kill less easily caught species. Enter Norwegian Svend Foyn. He was instrumental in developing modern whaling techniques, which included steam-powered whaling boats (now diesel of course), high-powered harpoon cannons and grenade-laden harpoons meant to detonate their payload inside the whale's body. Foyn wasn't fooling around.

Whaling equipment has evolved since then (although more primitive tools are still used in some waters) and a big push toward improving the humaneness of whaling practices began in Norway in the 1980s. Today, Norwegian whalers in particular make use of highly explosive penthrite-tipped harpoons that shoot out of cannons some 50 to 60 millimeters (2 inches) in diameter. As the harpoon enters the whale, two hooks at the back of the grenade catch on the whale's skin and a nylon cord extending from them pulls the grenade pin when it gets to an ideal depth inside the whale's body for detonation.

Whale of a Time

The goal of all this is to achieve as humane a hunt as possible. According to the International Whaling Commission, the working definition for this is:

"Humane killing of an animal means causing its death without pain, stress or distress perceptible to the animal. That is the ideal. Any humane killing technique aims first to render an animal insensitive to pain as swiftly as technically possible. In practice this cannot be instantaneous in the scientific sense."

There are three main criteria for determining when an animal succumbs to unconsciousness and eventually death. These are when the whale's lower jaw relaxes, its flippers cease paddling and it starts to sink without any active motion. Whalers then hurry to haul in their catch, to ensure that they finish the job as rapidly as they can so the animal suffers as little as possible, if at all.

The Fisheries Agency of Japan doesn't appear to have much to say on this topic, although they claim to take the issue seriously and reportedly practice techniques similar to those described above. Other member nations cooperating with the International Whaling Commission are much more active in their participation, though. Norway, as we mentioned, has worked particularly hard to improve Norwegian whalers' ability to hit the sweet spot as often as possible, through training classes and mandatory certification tests.

The Norwegians and other vested parties have also conducted studies on ways to minimize time-to-death by analyzing which areas of whales' bodies are the most effective to target, what angle of fire delivers the best results, in addition to honing the technological improvements mentioned previously.

When the Worst Happens

So what's it like when a whale isn't killed instantly? According to some volunteers from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, it's not pretty. When members saw a whale harpooned in 2009, they claimed it took 25 excruciating minutes for the animal to die (and they say that when managed poorly, it can take much longer). The process was reportedly heartbreaking for them to see. We won't get too specific with the details, but according to them whales can scream, and when they're harpooned they do so. Loudly, and at length. They also, according to the group, thrash about in apparent agony, while they're continually blasted with additional shots. According to that account, harpooned whales may indeed suffer.

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