IN 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling to allow stocks to replenish. However, this ongoing ban allows member nations to grant themselves special permits to kill whales for scientific research, with the proviso that the whale meat is utilised following data collection.
Only Japan holds a special permit. Its current research programme, which started in 2000 and is run by the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), proposes to kill more than 1000 whales a year in the Antarctic and the western north Pacific. The stated objectives are to determine the population structure and feeding habits of several whale species, including endangered fin and sei whales, in order to “manage” stocks.
Japan has already been widely criticised for its whaling, which is generally seen as a thinly disguised hunting operation. But with the 2009 IWC meeting looming, it is worth rehearsing the arguments against scientific whaling.
Although Japan’s early results produced useful information, recent advances in non-lethal techniques such as biopsies mean that data can now be obtained without killing whales. Similarly, it is no longer necessary to kill whales to work out what they have been eating, as this can be determined from DNA in samples of faeces.
The scientific impact of the research is also limited. Relatively little research is published in international peer-reviewed journals, compared with research programmes on other marine mammals such as dolphins. According to the ICR, scientific whaling has produced 152 publications in peer-reviewed journals since 1994. However, just 58 of these papers were published in international journals. The rest were IWC reports or articles published in domestic journals, largely in Japanese. Most of the findings are not circulated among the wider scientific community, and the failure to subject papers to impartial review renders the value of much of this literature questionable.
Whether the results from scientific whaling are useful for stock management has also been questioned. The Scientific Committee of the IWC has explicitly stated that the results generated by the Japanese Whale Research Program in the Antarctic (JARPA) “were not required for management“. Independent research shows that the data may overestimate whale abundance by up to 80 per cent (Marine Ecology Progress Series, vol 242, p 295).
Finally, given that there is considerable variation in the capacity of different whale populations to recover from stock depletion (Marine Mammal Science, vol 24, p 183), the value of the research for understanding populations outside the Antarctic and western north Pacific – which may one day be reconsidered for commercial whaling – is limited. This fundamentally undermines the justification for scientific whaling.
17 June 2009 by Nichola Raihani et Tim Clutton-Brock
Magazine issue N° 2713 – June
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