Jan 22, 2014

Meet the US scientists who are legitimising Japanese whaling

Perhaps Japan's so-called "scientific" whaling is exactly that? Crikey reveals that US researchers are publishing papers based on the results, casting some doubt on Australia's claim the science is a sham.

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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)

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10 thoughts on “Meet the US scientists who are legitimising Japanese whaling

  1. Gavin Moodie

    No university should conduct research and no respectable journal should publish results from any research involving animals (or humans) without ethics clearance.

  2. Ryohei Uchida

    Oh dear, Cathy. It appears your preconceived notions and personal whims may have gotten the better of you.

    Firstly, the headline claims that US scientists are “legitimising Japanese whaling”. This assumes that Japanese whaling is somehow illegitimate. Given the Australian case in the ICJ making that very claim is yet to be decided (let alone widely expected to be lost), this is a remarkable assumption to make. I dare say the assumption is erroneous and baseless. And unfortunately, it also colours the entire article.

    If you were to discard your assumptions and anti-whaling predisposition, you might consider that the highly reputable US academic and environmental institutions using the results of the Japanese cetacean research program is merely further proof that the science is real and the results are tangible. Remember: just because it is being carried out by Japanese people and you don’t like it doesn’t mean it is illegitimate.

    Also, you describe the Institute of Cetacean Research as a “front group”. This term implies illegitimacy and deception. Again, it is a baseless and erroneous suggestion.

    You also cite the falling academic output resulting from the cetacean research program. Did you not consider that this might be due to the heavily reduced sample sizes resulting from the violent and illegal disruption by anti-whaling thugs?

    Cathy, you are clearly interested in the topic and have taken considerable efforts to inform yourself on the nuances involved. But could I please request that you attempt to be more rational and impartial in your approach to the issue and discard your apparent assumption that whaling is somehow ‘wrong’ and needing to be prohibited.

    And please pay very close attention to what happens in the ICJ. I believe the court will provide much needed clarity regarding the legitimacy of Japan’s cetacean whaling program.

  3. Samosthenurus

    It’s a fine line we try to tread. Whales are difficult to study so most information will still be of use to someone. With genetic data often ending up in large online depositories, as it should, most geneticists will inevitably be using this data like it or not.

  4. Scott

    Lethal sampling has been used in a lot of marine scientific papers…even Australia researchers have done it, though we mainly sample sharks. The are caught by commercial fishermen who then send portions of the dead sharks to research facilities. Much like the Japanese do with their whales. The only difference is greenpeace/sea shepherd don’t really care about sharks…too many “Jaws” movie viewings I suppose.

  5. Kevin_T

    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.

    I assume that that would affect a lot of research worldwide, some of it quite important.

  6. AnimuX XuminA

    For god’s sake Crikey — how many times does this have to be corrected in the news media? The International Whaling Commission does not allow or issue permits to Japan for whale slaughter!

    Japan creates its own permits in direct defiance of multiple official resolutions passed by the IWC. The IWC has repeatedly and specifically called on Japan to stop killing whales. How does this fact continue to evade writers who supposedly perform research before publishing articles?

    Furthermore, anybody can gather data from a pile of dead whale parts. That doesn’t make the purpose for killing those whales a scientific necessity or even the true motivation for the slaughter. Please do some basic research and open a book on modern whaling in the 20th century. There you will find Japan’s whaling industry repeatedly and purposely undermining and violating restrictions established by the IWC.

    Japan’s whaling industry has historically exceeded quotas, ignored size limits and species protections, hunted out of season, hunted in off-limits areas, and even setup poaching operations in foreign countries (pirate whaling) to kill more whales and smuggle the illegally gained meat back to Japan. So, nobody was surprised when the IWC moratorium on whaling went into effect in 1986 and Japan continued killing whales anyway — now pretending it’s all for ‘science’ in order to abuse a an article of the ICRW intended for limited use and critical research needs.

    Even the IWC scientific committee has stated Japan’s ‘programs’ failed to meet their own stated goals and the data can be gathered by non-lethal means.

    In 2002, in an open letter published in the New York Times, twenty-one scientists (including three Nobel laureates) stated emphatically, “We, the undersigned scientists, believe Japan’s whale research program fails to meet minimum standards for credible science.” The letter specifically states there is no compelling reason to kill whales in order to obtain data from them.

    In 2003, published in BioScience, IWC scientific committee members supported the 2002 rebuke of Japan’s whaling programs. The scientists stated, “Japan’s scientific whaling program is so poor that it would not survive review by any major independent funding agency,” and when it comes to misrepresenting commercial activities as science, “there has rarely been a more egregious example of this misrepresentation than Japan’s scientific whaling program.” They also explained that the vast majority of publications resulting from these programs have absolutely no value for the management of whale stocks.

  7. AR

    Not to breach Godwin here but there was a lot of angst about using results from Mengele’s Auschwitz fumblings and the Japanese “logs of wood” but hey, what does that matter when there is a buck to made?
    How would JFK’s moonshot have gone without copious use of knowledge & equipment obtained from Peenemunde, aling with those very helpful chappies who got their Persil Paperien in record time, without even applying!

  8. Matt Hardin

    Really Scott. Sea Shepherd don’t care about sharks? I must have imagined the man from Sea Shepherd speaking at the recent anti shark-cull protest at Cottesloe.

  9. er etgb

    Scott, Sea Shepherd runs active anti-finning campaigns every single day of every year. It is a considerable portion of their activities. So are their activities against tuna farming.

    And on this article, am I missing something here? Research does not require the corpses of hundreds of whales. No research requires such numbers of dead subjects.

    This very fact alone makes the hunt illegitimate, despite Ryohei’s patriotic arguments.

    If the hunt were in the name of science, then perhaps Japan need only kill a whale every few years.

    And I see no problem with scientists using the corpses if it is expedient. They need not rot while the rest of the world debates the ethics of Japan’s whaling

  10. Cathy Alexander

    I might just leave Ryohei Uchida and AnimuX XuminA to slug it out between them.

    But one point – re AnimuX’s comment – the ICRW says this:

    “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 subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit …”

    It then says:

    “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 available to that Government with respect to whales and whaling, including the results of research.”

    Japan does this. It issues special permits to hunt whales, and it does indeed submit regular reports to the IWC (see the graph below).

    So no, the IWC doesn’t grant permits to Japan – but then, that’s now how the system works.

    Cheers Cathy

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