Science or sushi? What we’ve learned from whaling
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.
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.
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