Pro- and Anti- Whaling Attitudes as Revealed in Public Opinion Palls

(from "Public Perception of Whaling", ICR, 1994)

Dr. Fukuzo Nagasaki
Institute of Cetacean Research

1. Public Opinion Regarding Whaling

A great many people in many countries have come to show an interest in whales and the issue of whaling. Even people with scarcely any knowledge of whaling are vociferous in presenting their views. The results of Gallup opinion polls, which I discuss below, reveal that members of the general public have relatively limited knowledge of whales and whaling. The results, nonetheless, are meaningful and can teach us a lot.

The whaling issue can be divided roughly into two aspects. The first is the scientific aspect which includes where the stocks of whales are to be found, and how large those stocks are (i.e., the study of whale populations); how large those stocks were initially; and what the relationship is between stocks and a sustainable level of whaling. This first dimension also includes biological studies, such as the qualitative relationships between different whale species and the connections between whales and the ecosystem. Such scientific data are necessary for the utilization and management of whales, and also have a bearing on the question of possible extinction of species. Naturally, the question of whale management can be regarded as one element of the scientific aspect. The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) studies these scientific matters, and issues reports containing detailed, up-to-date information.

The other aspect has to do with what is called cultural relativism. This encompasses food cultures, views toward animals in general, ethical values as they relate to animals, and socioeconomic issues related to tradition. I may be taking too broad a view of the subject by grouping all these under the one term of "culture," but I will tentatively refer to their totality as "culture" for lack of a better expression. For instance, to those people who have historically utilized whales as food, whale meat is not an object of aversion. Rather, it is regarded as an important source of food, especially for the people of Japan, Norway, Iceland and Greenland. By contrast, some people who have no tradition of eating whale meat find the idea of eating it repugnant. This aversion to whale meat as food directly translates into negative attitudes toward whaling. One aspect of the Gallup polls to be discussed below is the percentage of respondents who refuse to accept the meat of various animals as food. As the results clearly show, aversion to certain types of meat varies from country to country.

The animal-welfare sentiment also bears on the whaling issue. This is clearly a question of value judgment, and no simple right or wrong decision can be made in reference to it. An often-quoted example is the fact that the British, who have no particular aversion to fox hunting, tend to be extremely critical of the currently practiced methods of killing whales. Another example is that many people find enjoyment, rather than cruelty, in game fishing.

These considerations have little to do with the scientific dimension to whaling to which I alluded earlier. Nonetheless, they do become entangled with the whaling issue. If we ask people the question "Do you approve of whaling?", some will give scientific evidence great weight, carefully considering the changing size of whale stocks. Others will make a judgment by referring to the cultural aspects, often focusing on very narrow issues. But whereas the validity of a scientific judgment can be objectively tested, the evaluation of a culturally based assertion is next to impossible. Many of the recent debates at IWC meetings have been based on views which are far removed from logic and scientific evidence.

At an annual meeting of the IWC several years ago, a representative of New Zealand made the following statement to the commission: "The size of the whale populations is irrelevant. My government's policy is that not a single whale should be killed; I ask the IWC to adopt measures in harmony with this policy." The written version of the opening statement by the U.S. commissioner to the 1993 annual meeting held in Kyoto stated that "We found no support among the American public or the U.S. Congress for resumption of commercial whaling. ... The United States therefore will not support a resumption of whaling, whether coastal or pelagic." The United States, Australia, and New Zealand have domestic laws which protect marine mammals. These countries, as a rule, prohibit the killing of marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and seals. It is therefore natural for them to prohibit catching of whales as a matter of national policy. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to understand their insistence that these domestic laws should also apply internationally.

The great majority of IWC member nations do not regard whales as a food resource. Consequently, they have little reason to side with those nations that regard whales as food and advocate effective utilization of stocks. As a result, the pro-whaling nations form a small minority within the IWC lined up against the anti-whaling majority. However, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling currently in effect was designed to ensure proper stock management and utilization of whale resources; as such, the position that "no whales should be killed" is inconsistent with the original intent of the convention. The confrontation between the pro-whaling and anti-whaling positions is inherently alien to the rationale of the Convention.

When culturally loaded questions are posed to peoples embracing different cultural values, the result is almost predictable. The results of the current public opinion polls, therefore, clearly reflect differences in opinions as affected by differences in cultural values.

2. The Gallup Opinion Polls on Whaling

Professor Milton Freeman of the University of Alberta in Canada and Professor Stephen Kellert of Yale University in the United States commissioned Gallup Canada, Inc. to conduct a series of opinion polls. The results of these opinion polls, conducted in six countries, are summarized in "Public Attitudes to Whales", published in August 1992.

The timing of the survey, though somewhat staggered between the countries, was between January and February 1992, except for the U.S. poll which was taken in June of that year. The survey canvassed people in Australia, England, Germany, Japan, Norway, and the United States. A sample of 500 people was selected in each country with the exception of the U.S., in which the sample size was 1,000.

The following companies were selected by Gallup Canada, Inc. to conduct the poll in each country:

The Roy Morgan Research Centre Pty. Ltd.
411 Collins Street
G.P.O. Box 2282 U
Melbourne 3001
Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Ltd.
Gallup House
307 Finchley Road
London NW3 6EH
Germany :
Emnid-Institute GmbH & Co.
Bodelschwingstrasse 25A
Bielefeld 1
Japan :
Nihon Keizai Shimbun America, Inc.
1325 Avenue of the Americas, Suite 2500
New York, N.Y. 10019
Norway :
Norsk Gallup Institutt A/S
Grensevn, 86 A
Postboks 6251 Etterstad
N-0603 Oslo 6
Project manager:
Gallup Canada, Inc.
180 Bloor Street West
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2V6
In what follows, I will refer to portions of the report on these polls and also make a few personal comments. The mean scores given in the tables were calculated by giving the following numerical values to answers: 1 for "strongly disagree/disapprove," 2 for "moderately disagree/disapprove," 3 for "no position for or against," 4 for "moderately agree/approve," and 5 for "strongly agree/approve." Mean scores were calculated by weighting these five values by the percentage of responses, and therefore represent the degree of agreement with each question or statement.

In their report, Freeman and Kellert divide the questions into five topics: the acceptance of whaling; public policy on whaling; people's attitudes to various types of meat; people's knowledge of whales and whaling; and people's knowledge of the size of whale stocks.

The authors draw the following conclusions from their study:

1. Substantial differences appear to exist between public attitudes toward whale management and use in the four non-whaling countries where widespread opposition to whaling is found, and the two whaling countries where only a minority opposes whaling.

2. There appears to be a shared perspective in all six countries regarding the great importance of (i) protecting whale habitat from pollution and disturbance, (ii) maintaining an ecosystem perspective in whale management, and (iii) basing harvest levels upon the best scientific advice.

3. Though there exists widespread opposition to whaling in the non-whaling countries, in the event that further whaling is to be sanctioned in the future, respondents in most countries place high priority on ensuring that whales be killed in as humane a fashion as is technologically possible and that strict international inspection of whaling be in effect.

4. In further regard to whale management policy, people in all countries appear to place minimal importance upon strictly economic goals in comparison to environmental goals.

5. Regarding the acceptability of producing and selling whale meat for human consumption, considerable differences of opinion exist between the two whaling countries and the four non-whaling countries. Thus whale meat received the highest disapproval ratings of any meats in the four non-whaling countries; in the two whaling countries whale meat enjoyed neither high approval nor disapproval ratings.

6. People in each country appear to have only a limited amount of information concerning whales and issues related to whaling. This is surprising, given the public's apparent interest and (potential) political influence in regard to whale/marine mammal conservation in most of these countries.

2.1 Questions Concerning the Acceptability of Whaling

Question 1:
Are you "Opposed to whale hunting under any circumstances"?

This is a clear-cut question; it asks if the respondents object to the catching of whales regardless of scientific justifications or qualifying conditions.

The group of countries where "agree" lay in the high range (40% - 60%) included Australia, England, Germany, and the United States. By contrast, the "disagree" group consisting of Japan and Norway showed a very high level of disagreement. It seems appropriate to characterise the first as the anti-whaling group of nations, and the second as the pro-whaling group. Among the anti-whaling nations, England had the highest "disagree" percentage - higher even than that of the United States - and the lowest "agree" value. It is worth noting that roughly 30% of respondents in Australia, England, Germany, and the United States "disagreed" - in other words, though they may disapprove of whaling, their disapproval is not unconditional. At the same time, we should bear in mind that, in both Japan and Norway, 23% and 21% of respondents, respectively, agreed with the statement. Also, the "neither agree/disagree" percentage was relatively high in all countries except Australia.

Question 2:
Do you agree with the statement: "Non-endangered whales can be killed for human food"?

The proportion of respondents who objected to the consumption of whale meat even if there is no threat of extinction was high in the anti-whaling nations, whereas approval for the eating of whales was high in the pro-whaling nations, particularly in Norway. These findings clearly reflect the nature of the food culture in these countries, confirming the view that the whaling issue is rooted in cross-cultural differences. However, it is noteworthy that roughly a fifth of the respondents in the anti-whaling nations - a surprisingly high proportion - approved of the consumption of whale meat. On the other hand, we should not fail to notice that nearly 30% of the Japanese disagreed with the statement. I will discuss these two points later.

Question 3:
Do you agree with the statement "Harvesting whales is acceptable if properly regulated"?

This question is closely related to the preceding question on extinction. Those who disagreed with this statement were naturally more numerous in the anti-whaling group of nations, and the percentages disagreeing were close to those in the preceding question. Since questions 2 and 3 are closely tied to scientific evidence on whaling, the high rates of disagreement in these questions clearly indicate that anti-whaling arguments are not based on scientific evidence. Nonetheless, it is again worth noting that quite a few respondents, even in the anti-whaling countries, supported the concept of whaling if certain conditions such as rational management are applied. The rate of agreement with the question was extremely high in Norway.

Question 4:
Is "harvesting non-endangered whales justified for economic and cultural needs of traditional whalers"?

It may be that economic and cultural reasons should have been considered separately here. Although it is not clear which of these considerations weighed more heavily in the answers, there is a clearly discernible difference between the answers of the anti-whaling group and those of the pro-whaling group. We may note, however, that the proportions of respondents in the anti-whaling countries who agreed with the statement were relatively high. The agreement rate in Japan was very high. In Japan's case, I suppose, cultural considerations appear to have weighed more heavily than economic ones.

Question 5:
Do you agree with the statement: "Can't imagine why anyone would kill anything as intelligent as whales"?

The generally high rate of agreement with this statement seems to have been induced by the expression "intelligent animals like whales." However, there was a considerable divergence of opinion. In Japan, the "neither agree nor disagree" response was relatively high.

Question 6:
Do you agree with the statement: "Harvesting plentiful whales for useful products is acceptable"?

This question is related to the nature of the food culture in each country - that is, whether people treat whale meat as food. The national response patterns are divided, as in other questions, between the anti-whaling and pro-whaling groups of nations. Norway's "agree" rate was extremely high. Germany's "agree" rate of 31% is also worth noting.

The anti-whaling nations (Australia, England, Germany, and the United States) and the pro-whaling nations (Japan and Norway) showed clearly different patterns of response to each of these questions. It is noteworthy, however, that a certain number of respondents in the anti-whaling nations consistently assumed the pro-whaling position. For instance, in the responses to Question 1 ("Are you opposed to whale hunting under any circumstances?"), there was, on average, one person in the anti-whaling nations who did not object to whaling for every 2.6 people who did. Although this ratio of pro-whaling respondents to anti-whaling respondents varied from question to question, there was always at least one pro-whaling respondent to every four anti-whaling respondents. Of course, the anti-whaling position was observed in the pro-whaling countries, too. In response to the first question, there was, on average, one person who objected to whaling for every 3.5 people who did not in these countries.

2.2 Questions on Public Policy on Whaling

Let us now examine the eight questions dealing with attitudes of the general public toward whaling policy (results are given in Table 7 ). Naturally, the percentage of positive responses was extremely high in every country on questions pertaining to "protection against pollution, industrial activity, etc." and the "part played by whales in marine ecosystems." However, the percentage of positive responses in the whaling nations was somewhat lower than in the anti-whaling nations. Concerning the question on "maintaining traditions in whaling communities," the scores were low in every country, though they were slightly higher in the whaling nations. This result, too, is to be expected. In response to the question on protecting "jobs, social well-being in traditional whaling communities," the "agree" scores were high in the whaling nations and low in the anti-whaling nations. To the question as to whether it was important to minimise the "pain and suffering of whales," the number of positive responses was quite high in the anti-whaling nations as well as in Norway; in Japan the percentage was not very high. A significant proportion of Japanese respondents, however, neither agreed nor disagreed with the pain and suffering statement. The question of pain arises not only with respect to whales, but to all harvested marine animals. As such, the answer may not be a simple one for Japanese who consume numerous forms of marine life. The same can be said about the next question, regarding the rights of whales to live. Whales are not the only creatures for which such a right can be claimed. When it came to the question on providing protein and food for human consumption, the "agree" proportions were naturally lower, since whale meat is relatively unimportant to the human diet. However, in communities which have traditionally depended on whaling for their livelihood, whale meat is a significant part of the diet. Thus, the "agree" scores for this question would be very high if opinion polls were taken in these communities.

In late May 1993, Kahoku-shimpo, a newspaper published in Sendai City, conducted a telephone survey of public opinion regarding the resumption of community-based coastal whaling. Reflecting the presence of a whaling station in the survey area, it was natural that residents were more eager to see commercial whaling resumed than if they had resided in communities with no connection to whaling. This situation, combined with the timing of the survey - immediately after the annual IWC meeting in Kyoto - perhaps explained the very high rate of support for whaling. Regarding a statement on the "rational use of whales as a food resource," 78.5% of the respondents were in agreement. The resumption of whaling in Antarctic waters was supported by 52.0% of respondents, while the resumption of community-based coastal whaling was supported by 80.5%. "Resumption of coastal whaling first, followed by Antarctic whaling" was advocated by 40.7% of respondents. The Gallup polls, on the other hand, indicated that few people advocated "protecting the interests of the whaling industry"; in other words, not many people viewed whaling as an economic issue. It is worth noting, however, that the percentage of affirmative responses to this question was relatively high in Norway.

Very high rates of agreement were also observed in the responses to statements related to policies for basing harvest levels on the "best scientific advice," using the "most humane killing method technologically possible," and enforcing "regular and strict international inspection of whaling" (see Table 8 ). Such results are to be expected.

2.3 Questions on People's Knowledge of Whales and Whaling

Ten questions were asked about whales, whaling, and whale products (see Tables 9 and 10 ). Because these questions were of a fairly specialised and technical nature, the proportion of correct answers was, as would be expected, low, and "Can't say" responses were common.

Generally speaking, higher proportions of respondents in the anti-whaling nations - Australia, England, Germany, and the United States - concurred with such incorrect statements as "All large whale species in danger of extinction" than in Norway and Japan. Regarding the statement "Some countries kill >1,000 whales/year for scientific research," approximately 70% of Australian, English, and German respondents and 67% of American respondents gave the wrong answer. By contrast, the proportions of incorrect answers were 40% and 34%, respectively, in Japan and Norway.

As mentioned, the proportion of correct answers, especially in the anti-whaling nations, with the exception of the United States, was generally low. The proportion of correct answers given by American respondents was about the same as given by Japanese and Norwegian respondents.

2.4 Aversion to Using Various Types of Animal Meat as Food

These questions covered the following nine animals: chicken, deer, horse, kangaroo, sheep (lamb), lobster, seal, whale, and wildfowl. The six-country average of the degree of aversion to each species, ranked in order of aversion, was: seal, whale, horse, kangaroo, wildfowl, deer, lobster, sheep, and chicken (see Table 11 ).

Let us examine the nature of this aversion by country. In Australia, the ranking was: whale, seal, horse, deer, wildfowl, kangaroo, lobster, sheep, and chicken. Australia's degree of aversion to kangaroo was naturally lower than in any other country. The consumption of lamb was also widely accepted, which is natural for a sheep-farming nation. In England, the ranking was: whale, seal, horse, kangaroo, deer, wildfowl, lobster, and sheep. We may note that the aversion to both horsemeat and venison was stronger here than in any other country. England's average rate of aversion, too, was the highest among the six countries. Germany's ranked second-highest after England. The ranking there was: seal, whale, wildfowl, kangaroo, horse, lobster, deer, sheep, and chicken, with the aversion to wildfowl being the highest among the six countries. Germany's fairly intense aversion to lobster is hard to explain; the aversion to horsemeat and venison was, in contrast, relatively mild.

The order of aversion in Japan was: kangaroo, seal and deer, followed by wildfowl, whale, sheep, lobster, and chicken. Certainly, the Japanese are accustomed to using sealskin in clothing, but the meat of seals has seldom been considered as food. Although deer and wild boar were once important sources of meat in Japan, nowadays their flesh is not equated with the idea of food and people no longer categorize it as such.

Norway's average aversion rate was much lower than that of other countries. Of the nine animals, Norwegians showed the strongest aversion to meat from the kangaroo. This may be because they view kangaroos as rare animals inhabiting a far-away land. After kangaroo, the Norwegian aversion ranking was: horse, seal, whale, wildfowl, deer, lobster, and sheep. In the United States, the aversion rates were fairly high with respect to seal, whale and horse, followed by kangaroo, deer, wildfowl, sheep, and chicken.

As these results clearly demonstrate, the acceptance of animal meat as food varies fairly widely from country to country. The various patterns of aversion have particular causes; and if we also considered the rejection of meat as rooted in religious doctrine, there would surely be even greater variations in diet (see Table 12 ).

3. Pro-Whaling vs. Anti-Whaling Attitudes

Until the 1960s, when many nations were engaged actively in commercial whaling in Antarctic waters and elsewhere, there was no confrontation between pro-whaling and anti-whaling positions. At that time, many nations treated whales as an economic resource. Some made use of whales largely for extracting oil, while others also used whale meat for human consumption. International problems relating to whaling, if any, in those days had to do with the extent and methods of harvesting whales, the methods of utilizing or processing whales, and the price of whale products. Although there were many countries not involved in catching or utilizing whales, these non-whaling nations seldom took up an anti-whaling position.

Towards the end of the 1960s, however, the European whaling nations withdrew one after another from commercial whaling. The demand for whale oil - which had been an important raw material for margarine - dropped almost to zero as production of vegetable oils and butter increased. Commercial whaling thus became unprofitable. It was just about this time that the anti-whaling voice began to be heard in the United States and Europe. The anti-whaling lobby became extremely vociferous at the inaugural meeting of the United Nation's Environment Programme (UNEP) held in Stockholm in 1972, leading to a decisive confrontation between the pro-whaling and anti-whaling groups of nations.

For those nations that no longer needed whales and had abandoned whaling, whales were no longer of economic importance. On the other hand, countries such as Japan, Norway, Iceland, and the former Soviet Union continued to engage in commercial whaling. In Japan in particular, whale remained an important part of the people's diet. But to all nations that utilize whales and benefit from whaling, whales remain an important resource. If the nations that ceased commercial whaling - that is, the non-whaling nations - had given their approval to the activities of the whaling nations, no confrontation between pro-whaling and anti-whaling positions would have developed.

Commercial whaling began to dwindle in the 1970s, and the confrontation has continued until today. At the same time, the anti-whaling campaign has become more intense, culminating in the IWC imposing the current moratorium on commercial whaling and effectively killing the industry. This clearly shows that the confrontation between the whaling and anti-whaling positions is no longer based on logic or scientific evidence. The two sides are separated by an unbridgeable gulf rooted in differences in culture, as stated at the beginning of this paper.

These differences in culture may be characterised as the dichotomy between eating or not eating whale meat, or that between dependence on marine resources or on livestock farming. Those nations that depend on marine resources include Japan, Norway, and Iceland; other European countries are more dependent on livestock farming. In the community of nations, the former are clearly a minority and the latter a majority. The gulf between these two camps is not limited to the issue of whales and whaling; rather, it pertains as well to fish and fishing in general.