HC Deb 01 May 1972 vol 836 cc162-70

10.2 p.m.

Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)

I want to raise the subject of the preservation of whales. When I say that, 1 refer to the mammal and not the Principality. I am very proud that so many of my constituents take an interest in the conservation of wild life. The Eastbourne branch of the World Wildlife Fund produced most of the money required to buy an island in the Seychelles called Cousin Island, for the protection of feathered birds.

Cousin Island was recently visited by Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip on their visit to the Seychelles. The object of the exercise in relation to Cousin Island is the preservation not of whales but of a species of feathered bird called the Seychelles brush warbler. Through the action of the Eastbourne branch of the World Wildlife Fund this comparatively drab but rare little bird has been saved from extinction.

We have all heard that many whales will become extinct within a few years if their hunting is allowed to continue. The whale is a friendly mammal, and I am told that it has a type of brain similar to the human brain and is probably a great deal more friendly than many human beings.

I wonder how many of my constituents who write to me complaining about the cruelty of fox-hunting, live hare coursing and all the other sports—or so-called sports—that have been carried on by country communities for many years realise that these wonderful mammals— I refer again to whales—are being slaughtered by the thousand in order to provide pet food for their little doggy-woggies and pussy cats. The slogan of one well-known pet food firm*—and I suspect that the firm uses whale meat in its products—is "Prolongs active life "for pet dogs. We know that this means a cruel death for the whales.

I should say here, so that nobody can accuse me of being wrong about these things, that the following pet foods, all marketed by Spillers and Wakefields, namely, "Bounce", "Chappie", "Lassie", "Faithful", "Sam", "Kit-e-Kat", "Katkins" and "Whiskas" have no whale meat in them, nor do they contain any kangaroo meat, either. I therefore give clearance to those foods.

I understand that none of the pet foods sold by Tesco or by Marks and Spencer includes whalemeat, but many others do. Many people must have seen the BBC television programme "Horizon" which gave the life history and the death by harpoon of whales, and what dead whales are then used for.

On 12th December, 1971, the United States Secretary of the Interior called for a moratorium on the slaughter of whales. He said that in this environmental decade it would be barbarous to stand idly by while the last of earth's largest and, next to man, most intelligent creature would be reduced to pet food, face cream and lubricating oils.

Unfortunately, the United States Government seem to be rather alone in their enlightened action and, I propose tonight to ask the Government to take similar action to that taken by the United States, which has banned from importation everything to do with whales and whale products. The United Kingdom could give a definite lead to the countries in Europe, which are now the biggest importer of whale by-products. Before the United States imposed the ban on the importation of whale products and whale meat, imports accounted for about 30 per cent. of the total world output of blubber, meat and by-products of the whale.

In 1946 the International Whaling Commission was formed in order to protect whale stocks. Although about 16 countries, including the United Kingdom, are members of the International Whaling Commission, it has failed because it has done too little too slowly and has not been efficient enough.

The largest whale, which is the blue whale, is in danger of extinction. Incidentally it is the largest animal ever recorded to live within the seas on earth. There are now only a few thousand of them alive. In 1922 the whale population was 150,000. By 1962 it was estimated that 90 per cent. of that total had been wiped out. That was 10 years ago, and I cannot tell the House what the figure is today. Ten other species are in danger of extinction.

In the 'fifties the Antarctic whaling grounds yielded 30,000 fin-backed whales a year. The yield is now down to 2,500. The figures speak for themselves. Most of the world's whaling fleets have ceased operating in the Antarctic, but Japan and Russia persist. Japan is probably the biggest nig—I beg pardon—the biggest coloured gentleman in the woodpile, being a member of the International Whaling Commission yet operating outside the jurisdiction of the commission. Japan is taking a reported 1,000 sperm whales under a flag of convenience from the waters round Brazil and within Brazilian territorial waters.

Whales are killed by an explosive harpoon. This is a barbarous and inhumane practice which is strongly condemned by every animal preservation society in the world. It may be all right if the whale is harpooned in the head, so that the explosion kills it instantaneously, but whales are not always struck in the head.

A recent parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry stated that sperm whale products were imported into the United Kingdom for use in the manufacture and preparation of high-pressure lubricants, cutting oils, leather tanning oils and textile lubricating oils and in the making of fatty materials for the chemical industry. They are also extensively used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The by-products of whales other than sperm whales are employed as human and cattle food, as I have explained, and as fertilisers. I wonder what would happen to all these important industries if the whale became as extinct as the dodo in Mauritius. I am informed that all these products can be made without whales, from vegetable materials gained from countries in the sterling area.

At a time when the nation and the world wishes to preserve and protect wild animals which would otherwise appear to be doomed to extinction, Her Majesty's Government should give a lead and follow the example of the United States in this matter by banning the importation of whale products for pet food, cosmetics and anything else. Through the forces of international organisations they should bring pressure on other nations, and particularly on Japan, to stop destroying something in the high seas which many of us look upon as something of value, and I use the word "value" not in the exploitation sense. I hope that the Government will press for a 10-year moratorium on the slaughter of whales so that their numbers may multiply to reasonable proportions.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) is shortly to introduce a Bill which would give effect to the recommendations I have made tonight. I look for an assurance from the Government now that they will not only give every chance of success to that Measure but may perhaps take it over and make it a Government Bill.

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

Before my hon. Friend sits down, may I ask whether he is aware that many people and many right hon. and hon. Members support his eloquent plea? I had a letter from a large number of schoolchildren in my constituency wishing him success in the proposals he has so eloquently presented.

Sir C. Taylor

I thank my hon. and learned Friend very much. Looking at the empty benches opposite, one can see that there is no great interest on the part of the Labour Party and the Liberal Party in preserving these things, which I believe are of value.

10.16 p.m.

The Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

I am sure the House is very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) for raising the question of the conservation of world whale stocks at this time. I am in no doubt at all about the keen interest there is in this matter and the anxiety about it, of which the correspondence I have had from hon. Members on both sides has been clear testimony. I am therefore particularly grateful to have this opportunity to explain how I see the problem and to say, I hope clearly, what are the Government's aims and aspirations in the matter.

I say at once that I believe my aims and the Government's aims are precisely the same as those of my hon. Friend and, indeed, of the substantial body of anxious people who have recently taken the time to let me know their views both here in the House and by writing to me. We all have a common aim, which is to prevent the extinction of any breed of whales. There may be some disagreement as to the methods by which this can best be achieved, but the common aim is, and I underline this, to conserve whales.

That being so, we have in my view to control the catching of whales. Many but by no means all kinds of whales are hunted, and it is the stocks of whales which are commercially exploited with which we have to be concerned. These whales are caught in all the oceans by a number of different countries, and while only two countries go in for deep-sea whaling just now many others catch them from land stations. Whales range widely through the oceans, and they are caught in international waters by a number of countries. It is quite clear that any control of the catch can be secured only by international agreement.

Such an agreement exists. As my hon. Friend has said, under an international convention which was sired in 1946, 14 nations, including almost all the nations which catch whales, met together in the International Whaling Commission to review the state of whale stocks and to agree upon protective measures where these are necessary. My hon. Friend and others may very fairly ask whether the commission is effective. Certainly of late a great deal of criticism has been directed at it, and I do not think that anyone would want to claim that the commission has been effective and successful throughout its life since 1946. There can be little doubt that until the last few years it either failed to take action at all or did too little too late.

But I shall claim, and I hope to be able to show my hon. Friend, that the situation has changed. The measures in force are necessarily somewhat complex, but I shall try to give the House the gist of the protection available to whales and of the results of it. The catching of all immature whales and of all females with calves is totally prohibited. Having made that point, I now turn to specific stocks, as the scientific protection of each one must be considered separately.

First, there is the blue whale. As my hon. Friend said, the blue whale was in danger of extinction. It is the largest of them and it is, indeed, the largest animal which has ever lived upon the earth of which we have any record. It has been repeatedly put to me that the numbers of this whale are very low and that its killing should be totally forbidden. The catching of the blue whale has been totally prohibited by the commission since 1964. Estimates of numbers made in 1963 suggest that the total world population of blue whales at that time was between 1,000 and 3,000. My hon. Friend said that he did not know today's figures. I hope I shall be able to help him when I say that we think that those figures are today as high as 10,000. But the total prohibition still remains in force. Therefore one can claim that although the figures may not be as high as one would like, there has been a substantial improvement as a result of the efforts which have been made.

Other whales which in the past were brought to the brink of extinction are gray whales, right whales and humpback whales. With very minor exceptions—one of which is that the catching of these whales exclusively for local consumption by aborigines is allowed—these species have also been protected by a total ban on catching since 1965.

My hon. Friend was uncertain about the position today. Therefore, I shall quote recent scientific assessments of these stocks made by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. They were made independently of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission. The FAO report said: The gray whale has definitely increased. The right whales also appear to have increased though more slowly… It is too early to observe any changes in the southern stocks of humpback whales…but the stock…in the North Atlantic is increasing…". If all these breeds are, to all intents and purposes, totally protected, one must turn to the ones which are caught and look into the stocks of those.

Those which are mainly caught are fin whales, sei whales and sperm whales. Fin and sei whales are protected in the various oceans of the world by closed areas, closed seasons and catch quotas. Again, until recent years the catch quotas were set far too high and numbers continued to fall. During the last few years, however, quotas have been drastically reduced and the FAO assessment now is that, for the fin whales in the Antarctic, Catches are within the current range of estimates of sustainable yield. As a result the stocks have certainly not decreased since 1965 and may have increased. Outside the Antarctic fin whale quotas set in 1970 and 1971, with an existing commitment for a further reduction in 1972. will almost certainly ensure that the 1972 catches will not exceed the sustainable yield. That leaves only the sperm whale to be dealt with, and here, because of the very wide ranging habits of the sperm whale and the great complexity of the different stocks, it is difficult to give an overall picture. But the total world stock does not seem to be over-exploited, although I agree that there may be local areas of over-exploitation within this overall picture. This breed is protected by limits on size which give almost complete protection to females, and very recently catch quotas have been introduced in the North Pacific.

I hope I have not bored the House with this review of measures and stocks and I also hope that I have gone some little way to reassuring my hon. Friend, at least in part, by providing this scientific assessment, which I assure him is totally objective. There is no doubt that in the past the International Whaling Commission has failed to discharge its responsibilities fully, and I would be the first to agree on that. But it is equally true that in the last few years, and in part, if I may say so—since we are far too prone as a nation not to blow our own trumpet loudly enough—due to the tireless promptings of the United Kingdom, the commission has got to grips with its problems and its work has been attended by more success than one would suppose if one were to listen only to its critics.

I believe that the commission is the only body from which effective and successful protection for whale resources can flow. Any suggestion that we should now redirect our energies away from this body is to my mind a suggestion—and this is an appallingly mixed metaphor, for which I apologise to the House— rather like locking the stable door after the horse has departed. I want to say emphatically that I am not at all complacent about the present state of whale stocks. Despite the indications I have given that numbers either have been stabilised or are slowly increasing, I continue to favour yet more stringent reductions to speed up their recovery, and we shall be pressing for such measures at this year's annual meeting of the commission in June, which either my right hon. Friend or I will be opening.

There are also suggestions from time to time that some members of the commission may be irresponsibly evading their own regulations. About this I would say that we have absolutely no evidence to suggest that this is so, but doubters may be further reassured that the commission's international observer scheme, in which the whaling activities of each member will be observed and inspected by inspectors from their whaling rivals, will enter into force this year.

A further point which my hon. Friend made, and which is frequently mentioned, is the question of cruelty involved in killing whales. At the instigation of this country, this was investigated by a special sub-committee of the commission in 1960–61, a considerable time before the spotlight of anxiety was focussed upon the fate of the whale. This investigating subcommittee was not a mere congregation of whaling interests. The members included the Director of Whaling Research of the French National Museum of Natural History, the Director of Zoology of the University of Amsterdam, the Professor of Veterinary Science from the Veterinary Institute, Oslo and a physiologist from the Royal Veterinary College, London. These are men of impeccable qualifications and unquestionable objectivity. Their conclusions were that the improved explosive harpoon often produced instantaneous death and in other cases had so considerably reduced the time a whale took to die that any other method was likely to be less humane.

We have heard proposals for a ban on imports of whale products, as my hon. Friend has proposed tonight. I understand his feelings, but I cannot see the logic of a ban except in support of a ban on exploitation. So long as whaling continues, a ban on imports by this country will have little or no overall effect. The proportion of whale products which we import is small, and it is falling, and the contribution which we could make by such a ban would be so insignificant as to be of no real worth.

To tackle this problem effectively, which is what people want, means making sure that conservation means something. Many of those who write to me press for a ban on exploitation, as well as on imports. What I have said tonight will, I hope, serve to help Members to read with new eyes articles such as that recently published inNature,and, in the light of the authoritative reports I have given, I hope that the readers of that paper and, indeed, everyone else will accept that present rates of exploitation do not threaten the extinction of the species.

Whales represent a resource of great value to man. We have a responsibility to ourselves, as well as to the whale, to insure against over-exploitation—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour,Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKERadjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.