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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.

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.

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

  1. Bjorne Sorensen

    A fair attempt at an unbiased article on whaling, for an Australian.

    However, a more interesting topic for discussion would have been whether the moratorium ought to exist at all. It is, after all, the primary reason for this nonsense regarding research whaling. No moratorium? No science.

    The moratorium on commercial whaling was only ever intended as a temporary measure to allow the recovery of cetacean stocks to the point at which they could again be commercially harvested. For many species of whale, such as the minke and humpback (listed by the IUCN as “Least Concern”), this has undeniably been achieved. So why then does the moratorium continue to exist?

    It continues to exist because the IWC has been hijacked by ideologically-motivated anti-whaling countries. The Commission is now so clogged with countries that have no interest in whaling – such as landlocked Switzerland, Monaco, Czech Republic etc – that it has ceased to function at all. These nations use block voting to prevent the IWC from carrying out its stated purpose of regulating commercial whaling.

    Hence research whaling.

    So the crux of this entire issue is the impotence of the IWC to carry out its function due to corruption by anti-whaling forces.

    The solution is to reform the IWC, lift the moratorium (in regards to abundant species) and allow those wishing to do so to carry out a sustainable and regulated harvest of whales.

  2. andrew

    A poor attempt at an unbiased comment.

  3. Andybob

    If cows could only swim …

  4. MJPC

    Bjorne, interesting comments however, as I see it, it’s not the fact of a moratorium or not it’s the total irrelevance of commercial whaling in the 21st Century.
    Why would countries want to kill whales? All of the “reasons” of the 19th Century whaling fleets no longer exist. As for the Japanese and some cultural reason to eat whale meat, it is just so much crap.
    All power to the ‘militant’ Sea Shepherd fleet, at last someone who takes the fight to the environmental criminals of this world, be they private or public institutions. The commercial fishing fleets of this world have destroyed the world’s fisheries through over exploitation, given the chance the whaling fleets would do no less, science or not.

  5. Zeke

    Mr Sorenson, our region relies on the whale watching industry during winter. If Japan once again hunts Humpback Whales then this industry will disappear. Humpbacks will stay far away from ships and boats if humans once again start killing them.

    The whale watching industry is worth far,far,far,far more than the whale eating industry would EVER be worth.

    Whale killing is not only bad science, it is bad economics.

  6. zac48

    What have we learned from whaling???????….What we’ve learned from whaling is this. Only one small boat with a dedicated crew can prevent an international power from pursuing illegitimate goals within Australian territorial waters…..If Gillards Labor government won’t stop the ever increasing tide of illegal immigrants ‘breaking into’ this country across our legitimate borders and through our territorial waters the Australian people will take the job into their own hands.

  7. Bjorne Sorensen

    MJPC, I am not sure what you mean when you say that whaling is ‘irrelevant’ in the 21st century. How do you define ‘relevant’ and in what way is it any less ‘relevant’ than the harvesting of cows, pigs or chickens?

    The way I see it, there is no need for the Japanese whalers to justify their harvest, in much the same way as you might not see a need for the Australian farmer to justify his harvests. Provided the harvests are sustainable, then there is surely no issue.

    As for Sea Shepherd, well, regardless of what they claim to be doing, they have absolutely no authority to ‘uphold’ any laws and they certainly have absolutely no authority to commit acts of violence. I believe they are beginning to discover this through various judicial systems the world over.

    And why they would choose to spend their donated funds on the ‘protection’ of abundant species from a sustainable harvest is beyond me. Perhaps whaling is an emotive topic in Australia and is therefore a lucrative cash cow for Sea Shepherd? After all, I don’t hear them complaining about Australia’s vast harvest of the critically endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna. No money in it for them, I suppose?

  8. zac48

    Some people just don’t get it, Bjorne Sorensen. The ‘possible’ threat of the extinction of yet another of Earth’s species, being whales, is irrelevant compared to the ‘actual’ and ‘impending’ extinction of the human race. Welcome to the ‘real’ world.

  9. MJPC

    Bjorne, whaling is irrelevant because all of the products formerly obtained commecially in the 19thC by whaling fleets, such as whale oil, is no longer necessary in the 21stC, or obtained from other products other than destroying another species on this planet.
    Maybe where you live they still have oil lamps or whale burgers instead of McDonalds.
    As for the comparison between cows, chickens and pigs and harvesting whales I will let than one pass because the comparison is just too laughable. I haven’t read of any endangered flocks of Rhode Island reds.
    As for the SS and upholding law, what they are upholding is UN charters for a whale sanctuary. If the Japs are so keen on scientific whaling take a smaller sample, say 10, and dispose of the carcases other than by turning them into whale burgers.
    Just answer me this question, what makes Whales necessary for exploitation or is it the case that mankind has to exploit every species on the planet to destruction as it did to whales in the 19th C? As for BlueFin tuna, the SS does not have to worry on this point, Greenpeace has that exploitation clearly in their sights.
    In the end, capitalism ensures that every exploited species is done so to its demise, being it tigers, tuna or whales. Maybe there are some who are trying to stop the demise of this planet.

  10. Mark Reid

    Zac48 – perhaps you should re-read Bjorne Sorensen’s 2nd para. What precisely is wrong with harvesting whales if there is a demand for them and the harvesting is sustainable?
    Many who argue against whaling – especially by the Japanese fleet – overlook the fundamental notion that its okay to kill and eat stuff if that can be done sustainably and as humanely as possible.
    I fail to see why or how Sea Shepherd possesses any legal or moral authority to interfere if the Japanese whaling effort is conducted within the law, and it seems to be.
    They are pirates, pure and simple, undeserving of support or sympathy.

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