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.

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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.