What’s the most controversial issue in your country? Whaling is one topic that’s been dividing nations for many years now.

Whaling was once a major industry worldwide. And by the 1940s, more than 30,000 whales were being caught every year. Oil from whales lit the lamps of major cities in the US and Europe, and whale oil was used to manufacture soaps, varnish, cosmetics, paint and even the glaze on photographs. In order to oversee the development of the global whaling industry, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in 1946.

However, in 1986, the IWC voted for a temporary ban on whaling. The biggest concern was the huge decline in whale populations across the planet. Indeed many people say that the global moratorium came too late and that commercial whaling has already driven many species to the brink of extinction. According to Greenpeace, blue whales (the largest animal on the planet) are at less than 1% of their original abundance in the Antarctic. Sei Whales and Fin Whales are also listed as “endangered species” while Sperm Whales are classified as “vulnerable”.

But there are many other good reasons to oppose whaling. Whales are extremely intelligent mammals. They have social networks very similar to those of humans, and scientists have recently discovered that whales have brain cells only previously found in humans and great apes. On top of that, whaling is also a notoriously cruel industry. Whales are often caught using explosive harpoons that puncture their skin and then explode inside their bodies. In some cases, when the harpoon doesn’t hit its target properly, whales can take minutes or sometimes hours to die.

Despite this, some countries continue to hunt whales. In 1992, Norway declared itself exempt from the ban. And currently Japan hunts more than 1,000 whales a year – all of them part of a supposed “scientific research” programme run by the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research. Many people argue that this “research” is nothing more than a front for commercial whaling (the meat that is left over after samples are taken is sold as a delicacy). The situation was not helped in 2001, when Maseyuku Komatsu from the Japanese Fisheries Agency described Minke Whales as the “cockroaches of the sea” in an interview on Australian television.

Many ecological groups have tried to sabotage the hunts. In 2005 and 2006, Greenpeace sent boats to interfere with the whaling fleet in the Antarctic. In some cases, protests have turned violent. Just recently, the Ady Gil (a ship belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society) was rammed by a whaling ship. The Ady Gil later sank. At present, the world is fairly divided on the issue with Iceland, Japan and Norway on the pro-whaling side, and the US, Australia, New Zealand and the EU on the anti-whaling side. Asked recently how difficult his job was on a scale of one-to-ten, Cristian Maquieira, the chairman of the IWC, said “about a twelve”!

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