Australia is trying to stop Japanese “scientific” whaling on the grounds that the science is bogus. So it probably doesn’t help that prestigious United States and British academic institutions are publishing articles based on the results gleaned from the dead whales, as a Crikey investigation can reveal.

The only reason Japan can legally kill whales —  as it is doing right now in Antarctic waters — is for scientific research. Australia has taken Japan to the International Court of Justice, arguing the science is a front for commercial whaling (the meat is eaten in Japan). But the involvement of US researchers in Japanese whaling raises the possibility that whaling may make a more significant contribution to scientific knowledge than critics claim.

Crikey has found four US academic institutions have written up the scientific results of Japanese whaling, effectively legitimising the hunt. They are the Ivy League Columbia University in New York, the American Museum of Natural History, California’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and the University of Montana. Even the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society uses data from lethal Japanese whaling. An Oxford University journal has published the results. But the articles do not really make it clear their findings come from lethal whaling (whales are not killed, they are “sampled”).

The articles raise thorny ethical issues about whether scientists should use data that has been obtained in a way that many people are uncomfortable with.

Here’s proof US researchers are involved. The Institute of Cetacean Research, a front group for Japan’s state-sponsored whaling program, has spruiked the US research links in a list detailing the “scientific contribution” its whaling program has made since 1994 (the volume of research has plummeted in recent years).

In 2013 just two peer-reviewed articles were published based on Japan’s lethal whaling program. One was written by researchers from the US (Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society), as well as Oman and the Maldives. The lead author, Francine Kershaw, is from Columbia.

The article was published in Oxford University’s Journal of Heredity (read the full article online). It looks at the genetics of the Bryde’s whale, a type of baleen whale that lives in warm waters, including around Australia. There are different subspecies lumped under the “Bryde’s whale” tag. The researchers looked at the DNA of (mostly dead) Bryde’s whales, comparing DNA samples from whales that were beached or hit by ships around Oman, the Maldives and Bangladesh with DNA data from Japanese lethal whaling. They got data about DNA of whales killed by Japanese whaling largely from a second article, published in 2007 by the journal Conservation Genetics.

This second article was co-written by the ICR and by Megan McPhee, a researcher from the University of Montana in the US. This study looked at the DNA of 472 dead whales over recent decades, some killed by Japanese commercial whaling when that was still allowed back in the 1980s, and the rest by Japanese scientific whaling since. Of the total, 185 of the whales were killed for scientific research, some off Java and Fiji. DNA was taken from the whales’ skin, muscle, hearts or livers.

Perhaps the data from the dead whales was the only way these researchers could learn about the genetics of the Bryde’s whale — although researchers used darts to take biopsies from living whales in some instances. Some may argue that if the data from lethal whaling is already there, it makes sense for scientists to use it rather than ignore it.

“Some may argue that if the data from lethal whaling is already there, it makes sense for scientists to use it rather than ignore it.”

These two articles do not concern Japanese whaling in the Antarctic; they focus on a type of whale that lives in warmer waters. But the process is the same. Japan kills the whales for its scientific research program under what’s called a “special permit” from the International Whaling Commission. It’s this process that Australia is challenging at the ICJ.

The involvement of the Wildlife Conservation Society in writing the first article is interesting. The society’s media release claims the study will help save the whales from threats like Japanese scientific whaling:

“Saving the whales often means knowing — sometimes genetically — one group of whales from another, say researchers attempting to define populations of a medium-sized and poorly understood baleen whale that is sometimes targeted by Japan’s scientific whaling program.”

However, the media release does not mention that the study is actually based on the results of Japanese scientific whaling. All it says is: “The team also used published data sets from Java, the coast of Japan, and the northwest Pacific in the study.” There’s no mention of what those data sets actually are.

Crikey asked Columbia University and the WCS for comment but hasn’t heard back.

A result in Australia’s case against Japan in the ICJ is expected in the next few months. Whaling is regulated by the International Whaling Commission, which put a moratorium on commercial whaling in place in 1986. But Article VIII of the International Whaling Convention states the IWC can give a “special permit” to kill whales “for purposes of scientific research”.

Japan gives itself permits to hunt up to 850 minke, fin and humpback whales in Antarctic waters each southern summer (although it doesn’t actually take any humpbacks). It granted itself separate permits to hunt the Bryde’s whales. The whaling fleet is down in the Southern Ocean now, as are Sea Shepherd protest vessels (the Australian government has sent a Customs plane to do a flyover). Each year Japan produces scientific research to legitimise its whaling, but the volume of reports has crashed, as these Crikey graphs show:

 Number of published scientific reports based on Japan’s lethal whaling program (data source: ICR)

Number of reports on whaling supplied by Japan to the IWC (data source: ICR)

At the ICJ Australia has argued the whaling is for commercial purposes and is not legitimately about science. The case has finished and the judges are deliberating.

ANU international law expert Don Rothwell said it was the first time anyone had legally challenged scientific whaling. “No one ever said this was an easy case to make before the international court,” he told Crikey. Australia would have few options to legally challenge whaling any further if it lost the ICJ case, he said, describing it as “the one shot in the locker”.