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In science terms, Japan has no need at all to kill whales


Final arguments from the defence and prosecution were heard in mid-July, and the world court is now considering its judgment. At issue is Japan’s right to conduct its seasonal “scientific” whaling program in Antarctic waters. But the case has involved arguments about how to define science itself.

The legal challenge to Japan has been brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague by Australia, which has asked the Netherlands-based court to find that Japan’s whaling program is illegal because it is actually commercial whaling — not scientific research that is permissable under the 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling declared by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which went into effect in the 1985/86 coastal and pelagic hunting seasons.

On June 1, 2010, Australia initiated proceedings at the ICJ against Japan, alleging breach of international obligations concerning whaling.

Japan contends that Australia has embarked on an “alarmist crusade” against whaling.

The stakes are high. Political relations between Japan and Australia have been strained during the trial, with Japan accusing Australia of “an affront to the dignity of a nation” in bringing charges of lying about its whaling program.

But in the Southern Ocean the stakes for thousands of Minke whales, in particular, are higher. If Japan wins the case — and some commentators suggest it is in a strong position — the legal status of its whaling program could be strengthened.

Masayuki Komatsu, Japan’s chief whaling negotiator from 1999 to 2004, told The Australian newspaper that the international court could rule that Japan’s “scientific” whaling program — which many countries as well as Australia believe is a masquerade for a commercial whaling operation — is legitimate.

The worst-case scenario, for opponents of whaling, is that the court overturns the IWC’s 1985/86 moratorium on commercial whaling, known as Article 10E in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. That outcome would be disastrous for whales worldwide — and it is precisely why the legal challenge to Japan, which at first glance many people opposed to whaling would probably support, is highly risky.

Komatsu told the Sydney-based The Australian newspaper that he had been privately told by United States government sources that it was unfortunate Australia had brought the case.

“Even your government’s bureaucrats were not enthusiastic about bringing this case to the ICJ because, in the most negative case, Article 10E of the schedule may be negated,” he said.

Japan’s legal team in the Hague also feels that the law is on its side. Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for the Japanese delegation, was critical about Australia’s legal arguments in court. In the closing submissions last month, Shikata said: “We have not really heard effective legal rebuttal based on evidence and reasoning and we have an impression that many of the allegations are driven by emotions, not science.”

Several international legal experts gave evidence for Japan.

Allan Boyle, a professor of public international law at the University of Edinburgh, made the claim that if Japan’s current whaling program was not scientific, then neither were the research activities of numerous institutions worldwide that use fisheries data to assess sustainable catch levels.

Another British legal expert, Vaughn Lowe, an emeritus law professor from the University of Oxford, said that “there is no uniquely correct formula” for what qualifies as scientific research. He said Japan’s view of its whaling program was that it is “an absurd exaggeration to say that it is not scientific research at all.”

Let’s look at what we know about what Japan has learned from its whaling program.

Its stated objective is that it needs to kill whales in order to understand the feeding ecology and population makeup of various whale species. It needs to understand this, it says, so it can “manage” whale numbers through hunting.

Now, it is true that by catching and killing whales, and analyzing their stomach contents, a lot can be learned about cetacean biology. In the past, it was the only real method available to investigate these animals. But for many years now, it has been entirely unnecessary to kill whales in order to get the information that Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research says it needs.

That institute, by the way, operates under the auspices of the Japan Fisheries Agency, a division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which issues annual catch quotas.

In line with those quotas, between 1988 through the first half of 2011, 13,663 whales were caught under Japan’s moratorium exemption for scientific research. Of those, 3,573 whales were taken in the North Pacific Ocean and 10,090 in the Southern Ocean, including from a large area designated by the IWC in 1994 as the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

But it’s better to collect poop than to kill whales. Collecting their feces may not be the most pleasant job in the world, but analyzing the DNA found in great dollops of whale poop floating in the open sea can tell scientists — without cutting open its stomach — what animals a whale has been eating.

Meanwhile, DNA samples can be taken with relative ease from these mighty marine mammals by removing a small plug of skin from them. And a lot can be learned from their nasal mucus (snot).

Researchers can sample a whale’s breath — including its snot — by catching the gunk that spurts from its blowhole. (If you can’t imagine how you could possibly get close enough to a whale’s nose to do this, think creatively: Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, of the Zoological Society of London, flies remote-controlled helicopters over breaching whales, catching flying snot on Petri dishes strapped to the sides of the choppers.)

From these samples, scientists can determine the viruses, fungi and bacteria that live in whales’ lungs.

Killing whales provides negligible data to science. Less than 1 percent of the papers published on cetacean biology come from studies that required the killing of a whale.

In fact, tagging live whales tells you far more. GPS tags allow biologists to track whales and learn migration routes as well as daily routines. And acoustic tags record marine noise, so we can get an aural picture of the undersea soundscape — and an idea of the amount of noise pollution from boats that whales are having to tolerate.

So despite what the legal experts — not biologists — may argue, Japan’s claims that it requires lethal whaling to conduct scientific research just do not stand up.

The worry is that the ICJ will only be able to rule on the legal arguments, which may favor Japan.

It may be true that Australia’s case has in part been driven by emotions, as Shikata says. But Japan’s case is driven by national pride.

In summing up the legal case for Japan, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Koji Tsuruoka said: “We have been able to present to the world the truth about Japanese scientific whaling.”

Unfortunately, this just did not happen.

Now the court must decide what to do. There is a lot of information to process, and the ruling won’t come for four to six months.

Rowan Hooper PhD (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the News Editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”

  • Hiroyuki Masanobu

    This article masquerades as an informed and considered discussion of the whaling issue and the recent case on the matter before the ICJ. But in reality it is more of the same baseless and arbitrary nonsense that has come to typify the modern-day anti-whaling movement. This instance is, however, a little more concerning as it comes from someone who apparently has a PhD and is an editor of a publication that purports to be scientific in nature.

    The author clearly opposes whaling, and it is his right to hold that opinion. But he should make clear that his opinion has absolutely no basis in law nor reason. It is arbitrary opinion and nothing more.

    Rather than preparing for the inevitable Japanese victory in the ICJ and seeking to pre-emptively disregard it as some kind of aberration produced by “legal experts”, Mr Cooper should await the court’s decision and accept it.

    He would do well to set aside his anti-whaling fetish and cease with his delusion that this issue represents anything “high stakes”. Conservation-wise, there is absolutely nothing at stake. Even if the moratorium is junked (as it ought to be), nothing changes. The viability of whales stocks will not be threatened in the slightest. To pretend otherwise is wrong and deceptive.

    The only thing at stake here is Japan’s rights under international law (as erroneously and churlishly labelled “Japan’s national pride” by Dr Cooper) that are under attack from those who espouse the arbitrary nonsense written above.

    • Logic_Man_Logic

      Japan isnʻt hunting Japanese resources in Japanese waters. Itʻs hunting resources that belong to the world, and the world has spoken that it doesnʻt want its whales hunted. Japan is clearly abusing the scientific exception, and whaling under the pretense of science is a sickening, multi-million dollar industry staffed with retired beaurocrats.

    • AnimuX

      There is nothing arbitrary or nonsensical about the article. It first recounts in summary the issue of the ICJ hearings in which Australia argued against Japan’s ‘research whaling’ programs. The article then goes on to briefly examine the use of lethal methods by Japan to research whales.

      Those pro-whaling antagonists who seek to denounce every informed opinion which does not promote whaling will indeed describe the author’s statements as ‘biased’ (or worse). However, the fact remains that scientists around the world have on many occasions publicly criticized Japan’s abuse of ‘science’ as a loophole to undermine international conservation efforts.

      For example, 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.

      Japan’s response to this letter dismissed the opinions of these scientists by claiming they did not understand the provisions of the ICRW, sought to politicize the issue, and ignored the stated goals of the whaling ‘research’.

      However, in a 2003 response to similar accusations, 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.

      The author’s criticism of Japan’s ‘research whaling’ is both reasonable and accurate. Rowan Hooper’s opinion on this matter is, in fact, consistent with previous scientific condemnation of the JARPA, JARPN, JARPA II, and JARPN II programs. Australia contends that Japan is in breach of its obligations as a signatory to the 1946 ICRW to adhere to the decisions of the International Whaling Commission in good faith.

    • Michael Radcliffe

      The main point of the article is that research on whales can be conducted without killing them. Your comment makes no attempt at all to address that point, and seems therefore rather disingenuous.

    • topes78

      I couldn’t agree more with Masanobu san. I am surprised this article was written by someone with a PhD. The article in and of itself is contradictory and obviously written by someone with an agenda that is anti-whaling. Of course this is fine to be anti-whaling, but if one passes off an emotional view as scientific or legal evidence that is wrong. Yes the writer points out that there may be other methods to collect information about whales, but never states that the methods employed are completely useless. The writer even goes on to state “killing whales provides negligible data to science”, while I do not have a PhD I do believe the words negligible and no have different meanings. Thus the writer has actually supported Japan’s argument, and as such he cannot jump to the statement “Japan’s claims that it requires lethal whaling to conduct scientific research just do not stand up”.
      Further, Japan is not the only country to be whaling (excepting the groups allowed to whale for ancestral reasons for this discussion), Norway whales to a self-imposed quota of 1,000 Minke whales, and Iceland whales both Minke and Fin whales. These two countries whale for purely commercial reasons, but the outrage is nothing like the outrage against Japan. Norway and Iceland have registered objections to paragraph 10e, thus the moratorium does not apply to them. Perhaps it would just be easier for Japan to do the same. Recently South Korea has also stated that they will resume whaling for scientific and thus food.
      Also it is important to note for some that make the argument (like mameha1977 said above) about whale meat in supermarkets, that according to the scientific whaling rules, the meat is not allowed to go to waste. So the meat from the scientific whaling is not being wasted and used for human consumption. Also since 2009 some of the whale meat we see in the supermarkets here comes from Norway.
      I understand that this is an emotional debate for so many, but I would hope that people could look at the facts of the matter and realize the actions of Japan do fall under the rules for scientific research.

    • Kay Louise Kelly

      When you say there is ‘nothing at stake’, what you mean is that there are a thousand lives at stake but yours isn’t one of them.

  • Toolonggone

    Well, I don’t have a problem with author’s specific position on whaling, per se. I still don’t know the ends of Japan’s argument on whaling, since the ethics of their scientific research is under question. If Japan says their whaling is scientific research based on specific purposes related to marine biology or eco-science, does it always require killing of species in the end? If it is considered as science, then what would it possibly be its ends?– some kind of medical research on cancer, stem cells or development of new drugs!?

  • mameha1977

    If this is scientific whaling, then stop selling the whale meat. (I see whale meat in supermarkets all the time, this is no secret)

    Japan says it needs kill whales for scientific reasons. OK, so then Japan should simply stop selling the meat. That would then put an end to any claims that science is a disguise for commercial whaling. Japan could continue with its dignified and honest scientific whaling without hassle, and objectors would be happy because the commercial side has ended. Everyone’s a winner.

    So why don’t Japan take this simple step? For me, the answer can only be that Japan wants commercial whaling and has no interest in scientific research.

  • Eagle

    Apart from whaling and business, I don’t know if it really worth for Japan to get in such a mess for that and risk international relations and good partnership with Australia. Now, it is not only the whaling but also it has become a fight saving face in front of the world by defending something that is practically impossible.

    In modern democracies, one would expect that politics and business does not mix and business circles won’t control the government. More importantly, the government wouldn’t influence, encourage, and aid financially ailing business circles. Here, the government protects and even support, thus encourages, the whaling business out of national proud or possible material gains, and even allows this it to grow into a political and international issue.

    As for the whaling, the fishes, the whales are swimming all over the ocean from here to there. They are everybody’s and every countries’ shared “property” to speak so, they don’t specifically belong to any countries, they belong to all countries, therefore all other countries can sound their opinion and have the right to protect their own interests.

    Otherwise, I myself saw whale meet sold in supermarkets all over Japan at many times in Tokyo and at the country. They were packed in vinyl, sliced like bacon and 100 gram cost around 900 JPY. They do merchandise their scientific whale meet.

  • Peter Nozawa Thurwachter

    Maybe japan is scientifically trying to study if killing about .05% of the minke whale population each year is sustainable. Their end goal is sustainable commercial whaling after all. As for eating the meat, I thought not letting anything go to waste, especially when something lost it’s life was best practice.

  • Michael Colby

    Just leave them be, please. It benefits everything. Future research will ensure non-invasive advances.

  • Steven R. Simon

    Simon says that the only way Japan can maintain a whaling industry is to tie it in to aboriginal Ainu fishing rights.

  • ben260

    How many whales must be killed to reach the scientific conclusion ‘whales are delicious’?

  • Kay Louise Kelly

    Isn’t it annoying when someone frames an argument as “logic versus not-logic” when the actual argument is a pretty straightforward conflict of interest?
    In this case the conflict of interest between a commercial interest wishing to make money by killing whales, and the whales themselves along with those who wish them well.

  • Max Erimo

    What I can’t understand is the amount of money that is allocated each year in the budget for this scientific whaling. Another example of how the Japanese people have no idea or even care how the governement of the day uses its taxes. This money couldbe used for childcare, paid parenting leave, or most importantly creating an environment indusive for having children. maybe this could be the new mantra.
    “A whale a day keeps the children at bay…….”

  • Mark Garrett

    What I find really interesting about this story and others like it is that no one ever gets to the real heart of the issue when it’s right there staring you in the face.

    Look at the facts. Facts that aren’t disputed by either side.

    1. Japan has and has always had a very large fishing industry with whaling as one integral part of it.
    2. Over the last (X amount of) years, world opinion regarding the necessity and morality of whaling has grown significantly in opposition.
    3. Despite point 2, Japan has fought vociferously to maintain its industry, even finding loopholes to allow for continued harvesting.
    4. Japanese consumption of whale has and continues to wain.

    When we consider these facts the logical next question is, “why”?
    Why continue when so many people are against it?
    Why continue when no one is eating the meat? (The industry shipped just 5,000 tons in 2011, compared with 233,000 tons at the peak in 1962, and is expected to be half that, 2400 tons, this year)

    This is the real crux of the story. The answer? Subsidies. BIG subsidies.
    An industry with less than 1000 employees that has received $400 million from the government (a number that has been inexplicably rising), including about $25 million that was intended for reconstruction in Tohoku.

    The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is by far the most powerful organization in Japan, and has been since the days and years following WWII when it was tasked with helping Japan rebuild in return for a big piece of the political pie. There is no question that farmers and fisherman had a big hand in the growth of what would become the world’s second largest economy, but their time has passed. Pre-war, about 80% of Japanese worked in the industry, and immediately after still about 50%, now it’s less than 3%, with most over the age of 60.

    The real issue isn’t the legality or morality of whaling. Just as it isn’t the sensibility or ethics of joining free trade agreements. It’s the ridiculous amount of power and policy that the JAFF controls. This is what needs to be addressed and after that all of the other matters of contention will sort themselves out.

  • Jaycasey

    The bottom line is that this cruel “harvest” is unnecessary and does great damage to Japan’s image worldwide. If Japan wants to damage its soft power for so niche an industry then it is doing a great job. National pride is sorely misplaced in this case because Japan’s actions are revealing that this nation will lie in the face of common sense and world disgust.

  • robertwgordonesq

    If the Japanese are “hiding” their true motive for whaling behind the guise of scientific studies…Are whaling opponents hiding their true racist motive behind the guise of “environmentalism”?

    By “racist”, I mean targeting a specific group because of perceived inferiority, perceived superiority, or vengeance based on ethnicity.

    Here is why I say that.

    I watched the movie “The Cove” because I wanted to see what
    all the hub-bub was about.

    It was a great movie actually. Well executed. Well planned and quite

    However, it wasn’t a documentary….it was a “shock-umentary”,
    specifically designed and edited to cast the Japanese in a bad light and make the Japanese the target of venom.

    Simply, one was made to believe that the Japanese are the
    only ones conducting dolphin hunts.

    However, I can’t recall a single mention in the movie, of the whale and dolphin hunts taking place in the Faroe Islands in Denmark.

    If you look at this website, the Danish whale and dolphin
    hunts are (in my opinion) ten times as gruesome as anything going on in Taji.

    See website here: http://www.lifeinthefastlane.ca/gruesome-whale-and-dolphin-bloodletting-massacre-in-europe/offbeat-news

    See also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gydea-nUzFw

    Also, Danish whaling is done out in the open, no need to
    sneak around to get photos. It also seems to be a total community event and quasi-celebration with even children getting in on the act.

    So why wasn’t *that* featured in “The Cove”???

    Was it because the Danes are European?

    Further, if Australians are so concerned about the environment, why is the slaughter of kangaroos “as pests” taking place in Australian lands…where the Australians can actually do something to stop it?

    See the kangaroo slaughter here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbn3c8EcNRk

    A lot of people think kangaroos are just as cute as dolphins.

    All this leads me to believe that the outcry against Japanese whaling is merely elitist racism under the guise of environmentalism, having very little to do with “global property” or the protection of animals.

  • Frank Fortune

    How could anyone possibly justify the murder of these animals for any reason? I mean, it’s not like slaughtering cows or pigs…these are highly intelligent creatures with their own culture…It would be like a alien species coming to earth and murdering us all for science…

  • Priyadarsini Nair

    It is poor intellegience that we seek to justify such a henious act in acronyms, law and politics..
    There is simply no justification and there cannot be for anyone who respects the fact that we share this space we have with many creatures and they have equal rights to this world we share.
    If only Japan can understand this simple fact and stop masking such crimes as “research”.
    We have moved light years away from disection in the name of research..

  • Eric

    I don’t have a problem with them hunting whales. I just dislike the way they hunt whales.

  • eskemo

    So many are outraged by the ‘so-called’ whaling for research AND dolphin capturing/butchering by the Japanese government. There’s no excuse. The world is watching with complete disgust. In protest, I will continue to voice my opinion as well as support/donate to organizations created to protect marine mammals from the Japanese government and other nations who pose a threat.

  • gallowaygrumblefield

    Are there no Japanese who will stand up to this barbarian practice of whale murder?

  • hudsonstewart

    “Whales” are not an endangered species because they are not a species. Minke whales, the species of whale that Japan predominantly hunts, are not endangered. The Antarctic minke whale population is estimated at over 500,000 whales. Japan kills several hundred whales per year, hardly enough to put even a tiny dent in the population.

    The uproar over Japan’s whaling has nothing to do with endangered species. It has everything to do with Westerners seeing whales as “sentient beings” that are somehow ranked higher than cows and chickens on the totem pole of what is OK to eat. So it’s “barbaric” to kill a few hundred whales a year, but it’s not barbaric to cram millions of chickens and cows into spaces so confined that they can never move their entire lives? Chickens and cows that are so riddled with diseases that they have to be pumped full of antibiotics?

    The debate over whaling is an example of hypocrisy at it’s finest.

  • doug

    Whales will be the next extinct creature, right behind Elephants

  • Bob Franklin

    The people who support and do this are the worst people on this Earth! You are the scum of the world! No wonder the ocean keeps punishing you, you deserve it 100%!!

  • Tracy L. K.

    This is so beyond disgusting! There is nothing anyone can say to justify this kind of behavior! With allllll the options for food this should not be one! With allllll the options to do do their scientific research, killing them should not be one! Whales do not produce offspring at the rate of chickens or cows & to compare killing whales to killing chickens & cows is beyond absurd & just shows your level of intelligence! The things mankind continues to do to the animals on this planet & in our oceans is less than human! The wrath of mother nature is upon us! We are all responsible for these atrocities as long as they continue! Elephant tusk, rhinos, shark fin soup, orcas at seaworld, tigers, lions, bears etc. being kept as pets & for shows…..All of these things need to stop now. We are living in the future now, right now, this is not barbaric times, this is modern times & we humans need to start realizing that & taking responsibility for what we do & what we don’t do when we sit idly by & let these atrocities continue! There would not be killer whales at seaworld if everyone would stop going! There wouldn’t be a need forsny of the above mmentioned deaths of these animals if there would stop being a market for it! Until people vote with their money, brain & compassion for other living creatures these less than human acts will continue for generations! Will my grandson get to see whales & elephants in their natural habitat? Probably not! Very sad, very sad indeed! I’ve never taken my 3 boy’s to seaworld & never will, nor will I take my grand children! Karma! What humans are doing to this planet will continue to come back to us as it is very plain to see with all the natural disasters that continue to take place! THAT IS NOT GLOBAL WARMING…..IT’S REVENGE!! -peace truth liberty unity-

  • hudsonstewart

    Get my facts straight? Sorry, that’s not an argument. You have to say what facts I got wrong first. Nobody in the comments section here has posted a logical argument stating why it’s OK to abuse certain animals but not others.

    Minke whales will not go extinct from whaling. They are reproducing at a higher rate than they are being killed. They are a species “of least concern”, meaning they are as plentiful as could be. They are as different from elephants as could be.

    It’s easy to ignore the injustices you commit when you consume factory farmed meat, but it’s so easy to criticize others, isn’t it?

    Here, no need to respond. I will write your response for you:

    “Yes, but… beef tastes so good!! And think of the poor whales! They must be so sad to be killed like that. Cows don’t really feel anything, do they? They’re just stupid and stand around all day chewing grass. Whales are on a higher plane of existence!! They communicate!!!! Did I mention beef tastes good?”

  • Anonymous

    It’s funny how many people here are so against whaling yet are just fine with killing and eating other animals. As one other poster said, the species of whale that Japan hunts, Minke whales, are in no danger of becoming extinct at the rate in which they are killed.

    Are Westerners just so fond of their whale watching pastime that they become over-emotional and start fighting these issues without any common sense?

    On a another note, most regular Japanese people don’t even consume whale or support this ‘industry’ so the hate for Japan that many of the more ignorant anti-whale protesters display is pretty unfounded and unfair.