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Jan 4, 2013

Science or sushi? What we've learned from whaling

The only legal reason Japan can hunt whales is for "scientific research". As the annual whale war approaches, Crikey looks at the science coming out of whaling to see if it is trash or treasure.

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This is how to scientifically “sample” a whale.

It is harpooned, brought on board a “research base vessel” and dissected at sea. More than a third of the 266 whales “sampled” by the Japanese fleet in the Antarctic last summer were pregnant females; their “lactation status” and mammaries are measured, and the foetus is extracted, photographed, weighed and measured. A foetal skin sample is taken for genetic study.

Adult whales have their internal and external parasites identified, their blubber measured, their testis weighed, their ribs and vertebrae counted. Blood plasma is taken, along with samples of lung and liver tissue for “air monitoring”. The earplug and ocular lens are studied to age the mammal. The stomach contents are analysed. The whale’s length and weight are recorded.

The whale meat is then taken to Japan and eaten.

Why does this dissection matter? Because the only way Japanese whaling in the Antarctic is permitted under international law is if it is “for purposes of scientific research”. No science, no whale burgers.

The Japanese whaling fleet left port in late December — later than usual — and is expected to reach Antarctic waters in mid-to-late January. Four ships from militant protest group Sea Shepherd are en route to meet them. As both sides gear up for the annual whale war, Crikey decided to look into the science produced by Japan’s lethal whaling program. Is it good science — or junk?

The International Whaling Commission has had a moratorium on commercial whaling in place since 1986. However, article VIII of the 1948 International Whaling Convention states:

 “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Convention, any Contracting Government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take, and treat whales for purposes of scientific research … each Contracting Government shall transmit to such body as may be designated by the Commission, insofar as practicable, and at intervals of not more than one year, scientific information …” (emphasis added).

On the face of it, Japan abides by international law. Whaling authorities release various scientific documents each season, some of which are published in peer-reviewed journals. According to Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research (an official front group which deflects public attention from the government), 121 articles appeared in peer-reviewed journals from 1989 to 2011; an average of about five a year. Many are written in Japanese in the Bulletin of the Japanese Society of Fisheries Oceanography, but some have appeared in reputable international journals such as Conservation Genetics, Polar Biology, and Molecular Ecology.

But not all this science comes from lethal research activities. Japan also conducts sightings, studies whale vomit and faeces, and takes biopsies from (and attaches satellite tags to) live animals. Similarly, Australia is spending $32 million on non-lethal whale research, arguably to play to domestic anger at whaling.

The whalers also submit scientific documents to the IWC each year. The report from 2011/12 can be seen here — it’s how we know about dissection practices.

So some scientific reports are produced from lethal whaling, but it’s a live question whether the science has much merit. Japan’s report from last season concluded that whale composition in a particular area of the Antarctic was stable, ice cover had decreased, minke whales congregated at the ice edge and mature female minkes dominated the southern area. But that was largely based on the results of non-lethal research. The lethal research yielded anatomical and fertility data — and the report drew limited conclusions from that.

“When asked if he used research from Japanese whaling, marine biologist Rob Harcourt replied: ‘That’s a good question. Not really.'”

Marine biologist Rob Harcourt, from Macquarie University, cautions against writing off the research as junk science. Whaling authorities have published some excellent articles, and some of it has fundamentally altered scientists’ understanding.

“It’s not science just for science’s sake,” Harcourt told Crikey. “There’s a lot of information we can’t get from live animals.” He says whaling yields important information on the rate at which females give birth, helping build models of population dynamics.

But Harcourt says the information learned per whale taken is poor. Lethal whaling is not generally a cost-effective way of conducting science, should be aimed at a specific scientific question (it sometimes isn’t) and may not be of a sufficiently large sample size, he says. Japan grants itself a permit to hunt 850 (plus or minus 10%) minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpback whales each year, although it has not taken humpback whales recently. Due partly to Sea Shepherd’s protests, those targets have not been met.

A key question for Harcourt is whether scientists and society need to know the information gleaned from whaling, which feeds into the ethical question of what science is for. Harcourt argues our understanding of what makes “good” science is subjective and culturally determined; science itself is more of a methodology, a way of observing the natural world — it doesn’t necessarily pass judgement on what knowledge is “good” or “necessary”.

Asked if he used research from Japanese whaling, Harcourt replied: “That’s a good question. Not really.”

Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson says the whalers’ science is “bogus”.

“If they’re doing any research at all, it’s about whether they can get back to commercial whaling or not,” Watson told Crikey from aboard his protest vessel, on its way to Antarctica (Crikey reported on Watson’s legal fight to set foot in Australia in December). “We’ve killed hundreds of thousands of whales in the 20th century, so I don’t see what they’re going to gain.”

Watson says “there’s really no point to this at all” — if it wasn’t for the whale meat the science wouldn’t exist.

Under international law it’s unclear if anyone has the authority to judge the merit of Japan’s “scientific” whaling, and possibly prohibit it. Under the convention, a country simply grants itself a whaling permit and must supply some scientific research. The IWC’s Scientific Committee, made up of around 200 scientists, reviews these permits, but appears to have limited powers. As the IWC notes:

“There has been and remains considerable disagreement over the value of [Japan’s whaling] research both within the Scientific Committee and the Commission. Particular disagreement within the Committee has focussed on a number of issues, including: the relevance of the proposed research to management, appropriate sample sizes and applicability of alternate (non-lethal) research methods … The Commission has passed a number of resolutions by majority vote asking Japan to refrain from issuing permits for this programme.”

Crikey contacted the ICR, Japan’s Fisheries Ministry, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japanese embassy in Canberra but was unable to obtain comment on the merits of the science produced from lethal whaling, beyond being pointed towards some published science.

Cathy Alexander —

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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57 thoughts on “Science or sushi? What we’ve learned from whaling

  1. Bjorne Sorensen

    Cathy, I look forward to reading your piece on the ‘conservation case’ for opposing whaling and I hope that it is a rational and unbiased discussion. Such discussions on this topic are very rare in Australia indeed.

    Can I suggest the following article as a good starting point for reading?

    “Misguided Morality: The Repercussions of the International Whaling Commission’s Shift from a Policy of Regulation to One of Preservation” 12 Geo. Int’l Envtl. L. Rev. 305 (1999-2000)

    There is some handy information contained therein.

    But I believe you may be onto something with your idea that the popularity of the anti-whaling agenda in Australia is related to its ‘cost-free’ nature. That is, it is a feel-good symbol of conservation that comes at absolutely no cost to Australians who espouse it. Politicians on both sides of the spectrum compete to take the most extreme anti-whaling stance as it is a source of free votes without political consequence. Contrast this with pollution reduction or fisheries conservation, for instance, and the Australian position is no longer quite so vehement.

    I believe that Australia’s position as the world’s worst per capita polluter may also weigh into its loud bleating on the whaling issue. Perhaps by screaming loudest about the conservation non-issue of whaling, it masks the awkward truth about its own horrendous environmental shortcomings?

    To take the cynical view a degree further, there are territorial considerations at play here also. Australia claims a vast swathe of Antarctica as its own – a claim which is recognised by only a handful of nations worldwide. When Japanese vessels ‘intrude’ into that territory and harvest whales (in ‘violation’ of an Australian Federal Court injunction that cannot be enforced, mind you), it weakens the Australian claim to that area. In recent years, Australia has courted Chinese resource ministers and officials in its Antarctic territory with a view to exploiting its mineral wealth. So you see that Australia has a huge vested interest in ending Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean to protect its feeble claim to the area. Perhaps this is also explains why Australia is indifferently silent on Japan’s annual northern Pacific whale harvest?

  2. Neutral Zone

    “On the face of it, Japan abides by international law.”
    The moratorium is nothing more than a “gentleman’s agreement” between IWC members not to hunt whales. I believe Iceland showed us that you can simply withdraw from the IWC and hunt as you wish.
    People put too much faith in the IWC protecting the whales, when they overlook that “IWC” means International Whaling Commission, NOT the International Anti-Whaling Commission. Bjorne is correct that the group was formed in order to *control* whaling, not to stop it.
    All of this goes way back when the US threatened Japan’s fishing in the US EEZ if they did not stop whaling. Japan reluctantly agreed, and the US rewarded them by still kicking them out of the EEZ. Japan then resumed whaling under the pretense of science. This set the precedent for Japan that if they play by the rules, they will still get a raw deal, but using a loophole works.
    The Australian government is in a bad position; they are perfectly allowed to set up a sanctuary in their own EEZ. The problem is that the sanctuary is located in the Antarctic zone, which is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which Australia signed, therefore signing away many rights. One of them being the establishment of new zones such as sanctuaries, and the operation of military vessels within that zone.

    This is where the spin makes the difference – Australia claims the fleet is breaking the law, and they are correct. The fleet says no law is being broken, and they too are correct. Only Australian law is being broken, but the Antarctic Treaty supersedes Australian law and dictates that scientific vessels are not to be interfered with, and Japan has permits for scientific research. Australia cannot directly interfere with the fleet (regardless of the questionable scientific results), or it will jeapordize its right to continue operating the Australian Antarctic Division.

    Until the Antarctic Treaty is re-written and all signatories sign again, we will never see an Australian patrol boat in the sanctuary enforcing Australian law, regardless of how much politicians and activists bluster.

    I do not realy have a position on whaling; I understand that people can get quite bothered by the harpooning process, and I would certainly agree that it is very gruesome. I cannot, however, ignore the fact that animals are slaughtered at least this cruelly on an everyday basis; the only difference is that it is behind closed doors, so activists tend to avoid this topic. If you’re up for a real fright, look up Kosher slaughter or Halal slaughter. These practices still happen every day, but they are allowed for “traditional religous reasons”.

  3. Lady White Peace

    Scott and Bjorne and all of you who think killing animals and particularly whales is a good and hearty thing to do…we cannot change your mind .. we know that mind will make black white and white black… that it will delude itself and try to delude others with science and o called facts. Fact is that all life is precious. As for the pseudo scientific study excuse this article on Crikey puts paid to that fancy lie.
    And for the person who said that Inuits can eat as many as they want… firstly it is so
    freezing where they are that carbohydrates do not suffice and they feel hungry after eating carbs. They need the blubber to feel full and to stay healthy in the freezing conditions.
    SO nothing whatsoever to do with them being Indigenous and getting away with etc etc besides they don’t kill anywhere near what Japan kills. As for the Japanese eating whale meat if you do your research you will find that they don’t actually like it all that much, particularly the younger generation..nor should they, it is a vile and primitive habit which they have outgrown. Again I reiterate that it’s about money not science and because of that it should be outlawed. I could say a lot more, but it won’t influence any of you who believe it’s fine to kill and take anything that you want ,exploiting everything that you can on this earth, which belongs to all of us! So I am going to save my breath and my sanity by pretending that people that think like that, have all packed up[ and gone to live on the Moon.

  4. Ian


    Yes, In some ways you have a point although I’m not sure apathy is worthy of disrespect. Even so I, myself can’t help but not respect it…too much is at stake.

    But there is also the question of how values might effect others, what motive one might have for holding onto certain values and the question of facts and consequences.

    And finally there is a question of being honest or not.

    On the question of facts – not legalities but underlying facts, I have no doubt that our civilization is in dire crisis now through a combination of a number of factors at the apex of which are population growth, the goal of perpetual economic growth (impossible on a finite planet), neo-conservative capitalism that has and continues to shift wealth away from the many towards the few and exploit the earth’s resources at an increasingly unsustainable level and finally there is the rampant militarism, and the destructive weaponry to support it pursued by the US and its allies.

    This is not little Easter Island we’re talking about but a rather big Planet Earth.

    To bring this whaling thing into context. This is not subsistence whaling we are concerned with here but a subsidized industry in a country that has little concern for preserving species, even iconic ones like the whales and the critically endangered blue-fin tuna. Bit by bit, chunk by chunk we are losing species depleting resources and fouling our habitat.

    Paul Watson happens to have taken up this particular fight and I applaud him for it.

  5. Matt Hardin

    There is considerable evidence that ocean populations of all creates were orders of magnitude higher before the industrial fishing era. There is also evidence that whale faeces sequesters carbon http://news.discovery.com/animals/whale-waste-greenhouse-gases.html. To argue that a population level a fraction of its natural (i.e. before exploitation) level is “sustainable” is ridiculous. Continual expansion of the population and increasing the demands on the environment will result in (is resulting in) disaster; not just for the animals but ultimately people as well.

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