Featured Image: A whaling boat lies anchored off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent with three harpooned short-finned pilot whales tied alongside. Photo credit: Adam Gravel, SalvageBlue

By Guest Contributor: Russell Fielding

The Whale Oil Myth

The so-called Whale Oil Myth, as summarized by environmental sociologist Richard York, claims that “the rise in the production of petroleum and other fossil fuels was a key factor in ending large-scale whaling and, thereby, saved the whales from extermination.” The development of the petroleum-powered engine, however, which ushered in a new era of whaling by giving whaleships the speed they needed to catch and kill fast-swimming rorquals such as blue and fin whales, registers merely as an inconvenient footnote in the annals of free-market environmentalism. Nor were whale oil and petroleum mutually exchangeable. Environmental historian Kurkpatrick Dorsey asks rhetorically in Whales and Nations, “Once blubber had been rendered into oil, who wanted it after petroleum had become more cheaply and abundantly available?” The answer is simple: Food manufacturers wanted whale oil because, in Dorsey’s words, “human beings couldn’t eat petroleum.” For more than a century after the development of the modern petroleum industry, whale oil remained a valuable global commodity and whales continued to be killed to produce it, along with other valuable whale-based products.

Since the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, most people’s diets have not included whale products. Yet, mainly within developing coastal and island communities, whales are still hunted for food and oil today. Accordingly, the connection between whaling and the use of fossil fuels continues with all the complexity and counter-intuitiveness as it did during the era of high seas whaling and early global industrialization. Today, we witness not the anticipated replacement of whale oil by fossil fuels, and thus the end of whaling, but rather the stepwise and gradual replacement of the fossil fuel industry with renewable energy. This energy transition, unlikely as it may sound, is influenced in a small but meaningful way by whaling. As we shall see, research findings on present-day whaling societies are now cited and used as a platform in strong support of calls to transition away from energy systems based on fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources.

Polluted food

The Caribbean island of St. Vincent is a place where whales and dolphins are hunted legally for food and oil, the latter being used in cooking and as a medicinal remedy (Figure 1). As apex predators, these species accumulate high concentrations of environmental contaminants—a classic case of biomagnification. My research studies the risks to human health and cultural identity presented by these environmental contaminants in the Caribbean food web. One of the most concerning contaminants is mercury, which originates from, among other sources, coal combustion. My research has found concentrations of mercury in whale tissue far in excess of recommended limits for human consumption. This is concerning not only for the sea mammals themselves and those who eat them. It is also concerning for anyone eating other sea food since whales and dolphins can serve as environmental bellwethers for the overall health of their habitats.

Figure 1: A Caribbean whaler reaches out to take hold of the tail of a harpooned Risso’s dolphin. Photo: Russell Fielding

The impact of human activity on the marine environment is both diverse and far-reaching. In other places where whales are hunted for food (like Alaska, Canada, Japan, and Russia), scientists have found levels of mercury and other contaminants that exceed dietary guidelines. In the Faroe Islands, a North Atlantic whaling community, the public health risk presented by contaminants in whale tissue is a major topic of public concern. In a 2008 report, after decades of issuing increasingly strict limits to the amount of whale meat and blubber that could be safely consumed, the Chief Physician of the Faroese Hospital System reached the landmark conclusion that the Faroese people should altogether cease the consumption of foods derived from whales.

The Faroese report concluded with a patriotic, but ultimately powerless, defence: “We in the Faroe Islands are without responsibility with regard to the marine pollution, which has been inflicted upon us from outside.” This claim is technically true: the Faroe Islands support no industries linked to the emission of mercury or the other contaminants scientists were finding in the tissue of the whales. The Faroese energy infrastructure is largely dependent on renewable sources; their government and industry leaders actively seek to reduce reliance upon fossil fuels for both energy generation and transportation. That the traditional Faroese foods of whale meat and blubber, which had been exploited at sustainable levels for at least 500 years, would be threatened by pollution that the Faroese themselves claim to have had no part in producing was especially disheartening. (To be fair, I’ve been critical of this claim, but only slightly.) As my research continued to investigate the presence of similar contaminants in the Caribbean environment, I wondered if the affected communities there could make similar claims of innocence.

Renewable energy transitions

The question of culpability among Caribbean nations with regard to industrial contaminants in their food supplies led me to begin investigating the potential for—and barriers to—renewable energy development in the region. I started in St. Barthélemy, an island that stands out as an early adopter of renewable energy systems, specifically in the form of a waste-to-energy facility that provides thermal energy from burning municipal waste to power the island’s seawater desalination plant (Figure 2). Most Caribbean islands generate their electricity from imported fuel oil; only a few produce energy from coal or have coal resources of their own. Several, however, are actively exploring ways to increase reliance upon renewable energy sources and some, like St. Barthélemy, have begun to transition away from imported fossil fuels and toward energy systems that make better, often cleaner and possibly cheaper, use of locally-available natural resources.

Figure 2: An employee inspects the main incinerator at the waste-to-energy plant on St. Barthélemy. Photo: Russell Fielding

By relying as they presently do on fossil fuels, any claim by most Caribbean communities, even St. Barthélemy, to be “without responsibility with regard to the marine pollution” affecting their food security would be tenuous at best. To be sure, as with any energy source, coal, oil, and natural gas each comes with its own particular risks of environmental harm. The mercury that my research has found in whale tissue likely traces back to coal. But petroleum-based fossil fuels threaten marine life even more visibly: The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which pushed the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale to the “brink of extinction” through habitat loss is perhaps the most salient example in recent memory. The potential transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy systems in the Caribbean would thus represent not just a claim of innocence with regard to the issue of contamination. With effective renewable energy projects implemented, these small islands could serve as test cases for larger continental power grids in their own quest for greater sustainability.

To learn more about renewable energy development in the Caribbean I’ve begun a survey of projects throughout the region. The diversity of renewable energy projects rivals the cultural and geographical diversity among the islands. My findings on the subject include success stories like St. Barthélemy, along with wind farms on Aruba, and a geothermal plant under construction on St. Vincent. Some are, as yet, only aspirational like Barbados’s goal of deriving 29% of its energy from renewable sources by 2029. Saba has gone even further, proposing to become 100% dependent upon renewable energy by 2050. Other islands have seen less success. St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, for example, is the site of a planned waste-to-energy facility that never materialized and the development of a similar facility in Barbados has been beset with political obstacles for years. Even St. Barthélemy’s energy transition comes with its limits: The island’s president, Bruno Magras, told me that while he supports the waste-to-energy facility, he worries that offshore wind turbines would be “too ugly” and that solar panels might diminish the aesthetic of the famous red-tile roofs of the capital, Gustavia (Figure 3).

Figure 3: An aerial view of Gustavia, capital of St. Barthélemy, in the French West Indies. Photo: Diane Fielding

The economic, environmental, and health risks inherent in a reliance upon fossil fuels are well understood within the Caribbean region. In Barbados, for example, the government’s push toward renewable energy is driven by its concern “about possible oil spills, and the effect of emissions on public health.” Small islands such as these are especially vulnerable to interruptions in the supply of imported resources and, considering their lack of locally available fossil fuel resources, would benefit greatly from the development of renewable energy infrastructures—especially those that make use of resources these islands do have in abundance: sun, wind, the sea, volcanism, and municipal solid waste.

The Whale Oil Myth, Revisited

Marine scientists have shown that, of all the ways human activity endangers whales today, whaling plays a statistically minor—though significantly more visible—part (Figure 4). Today pollution presents a much greater threat to whale lives than whaling does. In 2007, the documentary series Frontline produced a short film about the health risks of contaminated whale meat in the Faroe Islands called “Message from the Sea.” Now, more than a decade later, an echo of that North Atlantic message is ringing out from the Caribbean with a distinct coda urging—and in some cases modelling—the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. This transition is driven, in part, by the concerns of small island whalers who seek to continue their trade while claiming to be “without responsibility” for the contaminants putting its future at risk. If they succeed, and if they convince the industrialized nations of the world to follow their lead, then perhaps the Whale Oil Myth can be replaced by a more accurate, if not ironic, description of the relationship between the whaling and energy industries. In the original Myth, the emergence of a fossil fuel economy saved the whales from whaling. In this revision, whaling will continue—at a small and sustainable scale, ideally—and the scientific insights it allows into the state of the marine environment will bring the predominance of fossil fuels to an end.

Figure 4: A vertebrae of a small whale or dolphin lies on the shore at Barrouallie, St. Vincent, the Caribbean’s most prolific whaling port. Photo: Hannah-Marie Garcia