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The 'Science' of Whaling

Japan is preparing to submit a scaled down plan for a new 'scientific' minke-whaling program in the Antarctic. But is it absolutely necessary to kill whales in the name of research? And is lethal whaling really more effective than non-lethal research methods?

Japan has operated a scientific whaling program in the Antarctic region for 24 years. The JARPA program commenced with approval from the International Whaling Commission in 1987 and was extended in 2004-05 as JARPA II. The primary objective of the program was to estimate the numbers of Antarctic minke whales. Over the first sixteen years, or stage one of the program, more than 6,700 minke whales were killed in the name of science.

On March 31 the International Court of Justice ruled that JARPA II was in violation of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. There was celebration around the world as anti-whaling activists were reduced to tears of joy on the courtroom steps, believing scientific whaling in the Antarctic was finished for good.

"In light of the fact that JARPA II has been going on since 2005 and has involved the killing of about 3,600 minke whales, the scientific output to date appears limited," the court said in its judgment.

The organization in charge of carrying out Japanese whaling, the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), claims it has produced 130 peer-reviewed research articles, or an average of 5 articles per year since 1988. While this may sound like a reasonable research output, the ICR includes all published research in this figure, not only studies conducted as part of the lethal whaling program. When it came time to produce evidence of viable scientific research using whales killed in the Southern Ocean, Japan were only able to produce two peer-reviewed papers.

The court ruled that neither of these two papers addressed JARPA II's stated objectives of monitoring the Antarctic ecosystem, modelling competition among whale species, detailing temporal and spatial changes in stock structure, and improving the management procedure for Antarctic minke whale stocks.

A third paper studying close to 8,500 whales was published in February 2014 (Tamura and Konishi), after the international court had finished hearing the Australia vs. Japan scientific whaling case. It includes data on the stomach content of nearly 8,500 whales, including 1,828 whales from JARPA II. While this study was able to report information on krill numbers, ascertaining that the amount of krill in minke whale stomachs has declined by almost a third over a 23 year period, it is unclear why such a large number of whales were killed for the study.

While this information is somewhat useful, lethal research methods were not needed to document the already well-known phenomenon of declining krill numbers. Fisheries can report on krill catches, as can underwater vessel monitoring devices. Biological investigations using techniques such as acoustic surveys are constantly monitoring krill in the Atlantic sector, collecting data on life cycles, stock demography, and stock dynamics. These methods can also help us monitor the Antarctic ecosystem, model competition among whale species, and create detailed reports on temporal and spatial changes in whale stock structure – all supposed objectives of lethal whaling research.

We can even monitor how much krill whales are consuming through data monitoring tags, a technique already being utilized in Antarctica by marine mammal ecologists at Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute in Newport. Ari Friedlaender, who led the minke whale data tagging study said of their results, "We learned more in two weeks of studying these animals in the Antarctic than the Japanese have ever produced - there are ways to study these animals and their feeding behavior without taking them out of the picture."

We can monitor whale numbers and ages through tracking them, taking acoustic and aerial surveys, and through migratory whale watching and documenting programs. Researchers from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) use a number of non-lethal research methods to monitor whale health and behavior, including DNA sampling collected from naturally shedding whale skin, blubber and fecal matter. IFAW scientists even collect data by detecting pathogens when whales exhale through their blowholes.

Earlier this week an official from the U.S State Department unofficially commented on Japan's plans to re-commence whaling in the Antarctic, telling Kyoto News International "We continue to view lethal scientific research as unnecessary in modern whale conservation and management. We encourage Japan to take this view into account when developing future research programs."

Scientific whaling is clearly a masquerade to legitimize the commercial sale of whale meat. Japan has been using this shallow excuse for years, and the output of scientific data to come out of previous whaling expeditions is entirely negligible. There has already been 24 years of scientific whaling research, and we have barely learnt a thing. We simply cannot trust that this latest proposal, if enacted, will be any different.

As the former Australian Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garret, who was instrumental in the Australian government's legal case against the Japanese whaling program stated, "You do not have to kill a whale in the Southern Ocean to gain a deeper understanding of it."

I work with Australia for Dolphins, a non-profit working to stop the unthinkable cruelty of dolphin hunting. AFD advocates on behalf of dolphins and small whales, who are offered no protection under international law.