BOOKS: The World of the Arctic Whales

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1997:

The World of the Arctic Whales:
Belugas, Bowheads, and Narwhals
by Stefani Paine
Sierra Club Books (85 2nd St., San Francisco, CA 94105), 1997.
114 pages, paperback, $18.00.

Few if any true stories about whales have a
happy ending. The World of the Arctic Whales, a
lavishly illustrated coffee table reference, includes
three sad stories in one: the slaughters of the cheerfully
gregarious belugas, the ancient bowheads, and
the quasi-mythical narwhals. The saddest part, as
dispassionately recounted as the wealth of scientific
information Stefani Paine recites, is that all three
species are still killed in the name of aboriginal subsistence
by people whose only real reason for killing
them is preserving traditions of barbarity which also
included, in the heyday of whaling, both infanticide––especially
of females––and the exposure of old


people to the elements. The recent discovery of stone
spearheads in the remains of freshly killed bowheads
and the paucity of bowhead calves meanwhile indicates
a whale species and culture on the brink of
extinction: most surviving bowheads may be the very
longest-lived, who learned from woundings as long
as a century ago to stay far from humans.
“The arguments of both the hunters and the
preservationists have little to do with whales and have
everything to do with people’s feelings, beliefs, and
culture,” Paine observes, striving for objectivity.
Yet, “The whale is no less dead if killed for cultural
or traditional reasons than if boiled for lamp oil.
There is a strong argument for conservative management,”
she concludes. “It’s time to err on the side of
the whales, or there simply won’t be any. There’s no
use having a right to something that doesn’t exist.”
But of course those who continue killing
whales argue that so-called sustainable use provides
native peoples with incentive to save the resource.
Defining sentient beings as a “resource” permits such
logic, which evades recognition that human cultures
have not only the option to evolve, but also the moral
obligation to do so when tradition is wrong––preferably,
of course, as a matter of choice. One familiar
with the history of Arctic aboriginal whaling must
observe that it was largely abandoned, by choice,
until reinforcing the dogmas of cultural preservation
and sustainable use served the interests of trophy
hunters, furriers, sealers and commercial whalers.

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