Japanese Whaling: science or sushi?
By Sue Lieberman
Japan is expected to announce at the upcoming International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Ulsan, South Korea, the doubling of the number of minke whales it plans to hunt this year, while going after some humpbacks and several endangered whale species as well – all in the supposed name of science.
“Scientific whaling” has seen more than 7,000 whales killed since the international whaling body voted for a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. However, Japan – and Iceland to a lesser extent – has successfully exploited a loophole in the moratorium by using special “research” permits, which in essence, allows whales to be killed for scientific purposes. The research exemption was included when the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which established the IWC, was founded in the late 1940s. This “research” is heavily subsidized by the Japanese government, and as a result, the meat of whale species such as minke, Bryde’s, sei and sperm is up for sale in the Japanese market.
It is extraordinary that in the 21st century, Japan, one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations, continues to kill an estimated 650 whales a year based on scientific approaches of the 1940s, when little was known about whale populations and their reproduction rates, and when conservation science was in its infancy.
Not only is Japan’s science questionable and outdated, but a new WWF report rebuffs the need to use any lethal methods for scientific research when non-lethal practices yield equal, if not better scientific results.
Genetic analysis from small skin samples, for example, is now widely used to understand population structure in many mammals, including whales. Such analysis allows the examination of different whale species throughout the world’s waters, including helping to determine where the boundaries of different whale populations might be – a critical question in understanding population dynamics. In the past, whaling nations frequently set high quotas for large areas based on the mistaken belief that the total number of whales in an area was part of the same population.
Genetic samples are generally taken from a live whale using a biopsy dart and do not require killing or injuring the animal. Biopsy darting has also proven to be far more efficient, allowing scientists to acquire large amounts of data from a broader section of the whale population.
Japan claims it must kill whales to determine what they eat by studying their stomach contents. This, however, provides nothing more than a snapshot view of a dead whale’s most recently consumed prey, and not necessarily indicative of its real diet. In contrast, analysis from skin samples, again obtained using a biopsy dart on a live whale, provides a long-term view of the whale’s diet over a longer time period.
Japan also claims that lethal research is needed to determine the sex and reproductive conditions of whales, including whether a female is pregnant. Yet sex is easily determined with a biopsy sample, and a recently developed technique also enables scientists to determine pregnancy from biopsy samples.
Perhaps the most fallacious myth espoused by the Japanese is that whales are eating all the fish in the sea and are responsible for the collapse of the world’s fish stocks. In addition to hunting sei whales, Japan says its North Pacific scientific whaling programme needs to continue killing northern minke, sperm, and Bryde's whales to better understand the role of these species in the ecosystem. Nothing could be further from the scientific truth or legitimate scientific methodology.
It is clear that Japan's scientific methods are nothing more than an excuse to kill whales for its lucrative meat market, and that the shift to different whale species is driven by market factors and not science.
Japan has come under heavy criticism within the scientific community for failing to publish its research results from its “scientific whaling” programme, as well as failing to adopt recommendations for improvement of the programme made by the IWC’s Scientific Committee. Nevertheless, Japan continues to flout the global international whaling moratorium by hunting whales in both the Antarctic and the North Pacific, hiding behind the veneer of science.
Japan is a global leader in science and technology. How can a country that aspires to sit on the UN Security Council and be a leader among nations continue to engage in this scientifically unsound practice? How much longer can the international community sit by passively?
* Dr. Susan Lieberman is Director of the Global Species Programme at WWF, the global conservation organization.
This opinion editorial appeared in the Straits Times of Singapore and the Korean Herald on 14 June 2005.