Jonny Hughes: Why Japan and Norway should look to Dundee for leadership on whaling

It’s well known that the growth of Dundee, once one of the great cities of Empire, was founded on jute, jam and journalism. What’s less well known is the vital role whaling played in its economic success in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Humpback whale © Audun Rickardsen
Humpback whale © Audun Rickardsen

At its peak, the Dundee ‘Juteopolis’ employed 50,000 and produced an assortment of products from carpets to ropes, sacks, tents and sailcloth for export across the world. None of this would have been possible without whale blubber which, when melted into oil and mixed with raw jute, enabled workers to spin the fibres into useable fabric.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Dundee developed into the premier Arctic whaling port in Europe, employing tens of thousands of seamen and thousands more in processing. Yet by the early 1960s, the whaling industry was finished – defeated by the near extinction of whales in north Atlantic waters, caused in large part by the efficient killing methods of the Dundee whalers themselves.

Leith-based Christian Salvesen sold its last two whaling vessels in 1963, thus closing a chapter of history many would prefer to forget, even industry workers who, as Philip Hoare reports in his award-winning book Leviathan, described their work in open-air abattoirs as an “inferno”.

As the UK’s whale ports closed, the killing of whales in every corner of every ocean continued unabated. Despite an International Whaling Commission (IWC) ban on hunting of sperm whales between the latitudes of 40 degrees north and south in 1965, the same year saw the death of a record 72,471 whales.

Something had to change if we were to prevent complete annihilation – and it did. In 1982, the IWC adopted a moratorium banning commercial whaling. Since this landmark moment in conservation, there has been some recovery in a few whale species but many remain on the critical list and populations will take a long time to rebound to their original pre-whaling levels, not least because they now face new threats from entanglement in fishing nets to climate change and pollution.

Scientists estimate it will take until 2100 for Antarctic blue, southern right and fin whales to recover to less than half their 19th century numbers.

This slow but promising progress was dealt a huge blow by Japan on Boxing Day with their announcement that they are withdrawing from the IWC and joining Norway and Iceland in resuming commercial whaling. Japan will target minke, sei and Bryde´s whales but it is not yet known how many they will kill. It comes on the back of worrying news earlier this year that Norway put its quota up by 28 per cent to 1,278 whales, despite failing to meet lower quotas in recent times as registered whaling vessels have declined.

The international community must continue to show unity against the three rogue whaling states and keep up the pressure on them to listen to their consciences. Japan, Norway and Iceland argue that whaling has cultural significance and is an essential part of their history. This is also the case for Dundee, yet the city has moved on, content to remember the past but now focused on developing more ethical, sustainable industries including education, design, digital media and medical technology. As Dundee continues to reinvent itself, the coastal communities of the last whaling nations on Earth should think deeply about reinventing themselves and, in doing so, helping to secure a resurgent future for the mightiest and gentlest creatures of the oceans.

Jonny Hughes, Chief Executive

This article was first published in The Scotsman on 1 January 2019.

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It’s well known that the growth of Dundee, once one of the great cities of Empire, was founded on jute, jam and journalism. What’s less well known is the vital …

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