As Japan continues its whaling program to further its scientific research, Kevin Rudd has decided Australia will agree to disagree with this policy.

This is in stark contrast with his threats last year that a Labor government would drag Japan before the International Court to stop what has been described by environmental groups as “illegal commercial whaling”.

The Japanese dispute this and claim that they are being harassed by groups like Sea Shepherd, who they describe as “terrorist vigilantes”, while they try to conduct legitimate scientific research.

They contend that by positively covering these groups and prompting donations, the Australian media and wider public are directly funding or promoting terrorism.

So who’s right?

Are the Japanese merciless whale killers or does their scientific research defence actually have merit?

All Japanese whaling is conducted by the Institute of Cetacean Research, a privately-owned, non-profit organisation.

The Institute carries out biological research, including the collection of samples, which they say are used for “studies related to estimation of biological parameters, resource abundance, elucidation of stock structure and the role of whales in the marine ecosystem, and elucidation of the effect of environmental changes on cetaceans.”

They also carry out social studies on the “utilisation of whales”.

Whales are only killed in order to provide a greater study of internal organs and tissue, studies that the International Whaling Commission, which introduced the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, acknowledge have revealed a great deal about whaling.

Japan says that whale meat is only processed in accordance with the IWC’s ‘no waste’ policy and they are only following the letter of the law in processing the meat for consumption.

Japanese whaling is now restricted to minke whales, and small numbers of fin and sei whales. They cite estimates from the IWC that 2,000 minkes could be taken for 100 years without posing a threat to the species.

Last summer Japan killed 551 minke whales, although this was well short of their target of 850.

The Japanese argument is also supported by ecologist and former Australian of the Year Tim Flannery, who said Australia should not oppose the killing of minkes because it freed up food for larger, endangered whales.

So that is the Japanese argument – that their research is valid and important, and that whale meat is just a necessary by-product of their work.

But does any of this hold water?

Japan has apparently produced just 43 research papers in the last 18 years, in which time they have killed over 7,000 minke whales.

Dr Nick Gales, the head of Australia’s scientific delegation to the IWC, was a part of the team that reviewed Japanese whaling practices earlier this year. He told that the Japanese research was strange and unnecessary, and that it lacked credibility.

Some experiments included injecting dead minke sperm into cow eggs and trying to produce test tube whale babies.

Dr Gales says this sort of research doesn’t justify the killing of whales.

But ultimately no amount of research to the contrary is going to convince the Japanese to stop whaling.

A poll in a major Japanese newspaper showed 65% of people in Japan supported continued whaling, meaning only a major cultural shift will ever change their minds.

But perhaps some backbone from Prime Minister Rudd might help.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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