The Why Files The Why Files --

Non-lethal whale research: Science proceeds, but whales survive


Whaling standoff in Southern Ocean
The fleet of Japanese whaling ships that is chasing whales in the Southern Ocean is being chased in turn by environmentalists intent on stopping the hunt. The confrontation is heating up, reported the Australian newspaper The Age on Jan. 14, 2008:

Greenpeace has claimed a new success in its Southern Ocean pursuit of the Japanese whaling factory ship Nisshin Maru, forcing it to steam out of its whaling grounds. The pursuit ran on last night, with Nisshin Maru showing no signs of slowing as it steamed north, away from the whalers' designated "research area" off the Antarctic coast.

Greenpeace's ship Esperanza found the Nisshin Maru early on Saturday, scattering the six-ship fleet and setting back Japan's plans to take almost 1000 minke and fin whales this summer...

Boat approaches another at sea, ramming its bow into the side of Japanese vessel.
Click the photo to see protest ship Farley Mowat sideswipe a Japanese whaling ship in early 2007.

Meanwhile, the Farley Mowat, operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has harassed harpoon ships from the same whaling fleet. On Jan. 15, two crew members who boarded a harpoon ship were "arrested" for acts of "piracy" (the whalers' words), or "kidnapped" by "outlaw whalers" (the conservationists' words).

On Jan. 16, a Federal court in Australia ruled the hunt, which is taking place in the Australian Whale Sanctuary, to be illegal.

Japan says the hunt is perfectly legal, since international treaty allows "scientific" whaling. But after the "research" is finished, the whale meat gets sold and eaten, and we haven't been able to find scientists who have read many results from the 20-year research program.

V-shaped area of ocean between Australia and Antarctica is highlightedIn the vast Southern Ocean, long a focus of whalers, Japan's whaling fleet is being harassed by two environmental groups

The basis of a ban
The International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 because many whale species were so depleted that commercial whaling was unprofitable. Contributing to the ban, however, was an emerging view of whales as not a cheap source of meat or fat but as social, intelligent and endangered mammals.

Loopholes in the IWC moratorium allowed subsistence whaling by aboriginal people, and whaling for research purposes. Today, "research" whalers in Japan and Norway, and native peoples in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, kill an estimated 2,000 whales per year.

Dark, marbled slabs of whale meat litter the deck of a ship
Ready for the table? A deck is littered with meat of minke whales, which are considered "widespread and abundant" by the World Conservation Union. Photo: High North Alliance

The issues get clouded. Japan is the largest single whaling nation, and while its state-supported Institute of Cetacean Research insists that its purpose is science, the industry also contends that eating whale meat is a Japanese tradition, and that certain top-carnivore nations are not just critical, but hypocritical. The Japan Whaling Association, for example, says "Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the English being asked to go without fish and chips."

Ironically, one key supporter of the "put-the-whalemeat-on-the-plate" approach was the U.S. occupation government after World War II, which saw whalemeat as, well, meat.

Last fall, under pressure, Japan beached its announced hunt for 50 humpback whales, which are the most popular among whale-watchers. The population of humpbacks sank to about 1,000 in the 1960s, but the hunting ban has allowed them to recover to roughly 30,000.

Japan did not rescind its ongoing hunt for 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales.

Man in bright blue suit stands at harpoon looking out at vast gray sea
The harpoonist waits to strike on an unidentified whaleboat. Photo: High North Alliance

Whaling begins
The roots of whaling date back more than one millennium; over time, whales have provided meat, oil for lighting and lubrication, and baleen, a flexible type of bone that many species of whale use to filter small animals from the water. Baleen served as an early "plastic."

By the 1100s, the Basques were whaling in the Atlantic, and by the 1500s, the Japanese were whaling the Pacific. Starting around 1600, several European countries began whaling. By 1700, New England had an active industry, and ports like Nantucket and New Bedford sent ships around the world searching for harpoonable mammals.

The whaling industry, like today's fishing industry, followed a pattern: Whales were discovered in new places and hunted until they became too scarce to be profitable, at which point the whalers resumed their search for a profitable catch.

Blood curls in the water around whale carcass being lifted by tail onto boat
A minke whale is hauled onto a small whaling boat. Photo: High North Alliance

After World War II, new whaling locations were scarce, and the combination of an emerging conservationist attitude and poor profits lead to the formation of the International Whaling Commission in 1946. As attitudes changed and whaling declined, in 1982 the IWC placed a moratorium on commercial whaling. After the moratorium became effective in 1986, Japan and several Nordic nations exploited loopholes that allowed "scientific" whaling.

Early whaling "science"
During the hey-day of commercial whaling -- from the 1600s through the 1950s -- whalers gathered some basic biological data on their catch -- partly from curiosity about the astonishing "leviathans" of the deep, and partly because the information could be profitable.

Japan's scientific whaling is operated by the Institute of Cetacean Research, which says it is trying to answer questions that non-lethal cannot answer, such as about stomach contents and animal age (which can be determined by examining proteins in the ear): "Identify whale stocks, estimate abundance and population structure, reproductive data and general health data; Study the role and effect of whales in and on the ecosystem, including their feeding habits; and monitor the effects of environmental change on whales" (see 1995 and 1991 statements and #1 in the bibliography).

Some outsiders, however, worry that the Institute of Cetacean Research is looking for reasons to whale, such as, for example, a concern that whales are hogging the ocean's bounty:

Japan's scientific study has also revealed that whales consume some 500 million tonnes of fish resources per year (up to six times total human consumption). The bulk of this is consumed by non-endangered whale species. This knowledge is useful in helping to plan ways to sustainably feed the world's population. Fishing will become increasingly important in this task (particularly given the environmental problems caused by the massive amounts of land clearing and deforestation going on to produce red meat). With about 35 percent of the world's fishery resources already over-exploited and another 25 percent exploited to their fullest extent, the role of whales in the ecosystem should be carefully considered.

Logical conclusion: People may have to eat whales so we can eat more fish.

Fighting back
The Japanese program is repugnant to the anti-whalers who are attacking whaling ships with stink bombs and a propaganda assault.

Men in orange vests on deck of ship shield faces after an unknown bottle of lands on board
January 15, 2008: Crew on the Japanese vessel react to a bottle of a corrosive substance thrown by protestors. Photo: Institute for Cetacean Research

Many scientists who study marine mammals are also uncomfortable with "scientific" whaling, although for somewhat different reasons. Hunting is an outdated way to learn about whales, says Rosalind Rolland of the New England Aquarium. "We have already developed, and continue to develop, a whole array of non-invasive techniques that give the same kind of information that the Japanese say it's necessary to get. If you are killing a whale, you only find out about that individual at one point in time, and then it's lost forever. With non-invasive techniques, we are able to follow whales for years, even generations, so there is the potential to get a much richer, more meaningful view of the biology and physiology of the animal."

Furthermore, the scientific rationale is so weak as to seem fraudulent, observes conservation biologist Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington: "I have never seen one scientific publication on the whaling, no results that suggest that science is truly being done on those samples. I am very suspicious. If they were doing scientific whaling for so long, and there is so much public pressure to make good on their promises, there should be some science out there, and I have never seen a stitch. It really concerns me that this is what everybody thinks it is: an excuse to do whaling."

Whales spend as little as 5 to 10 percent of their time on the surface, which makes them, by definition, hard to study.

How is technology exploring the lives of these mysterious mammals?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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