Environment | OUR PLANET EARTH

Scientists petition Japan to lay down harpoons

Early this week, readers of the New York Times may have been surprised to find among its pages a full-page petition, in English and Japanese, signed by 21 eminent scientists, including Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson and Jane Lubchenco, and the Nobel prize-winners Roger Guillemin, Sir Aaron Klug and Alan MacDiarmid.

Though it was published half a world away, the petitioners’ real target audience was in Kasumigaseki, the central Tokyo district that is the heart of Japan’s bureaucratic machine. That is because, unfortunately, with all the hype and hyperbole swirling around the whaling debate here, it is nearly impossible to get a sensible word in edgeways in Japan. The scientists, therefore, were hoping their concerns might have a better chance of being heard if broadcast from that distant but exalted podium.

The appeal, calling on “the government of Japan” to halt its “scientific whaling” program (quotation marks in the original), appeared in Monday’s issue to coincide with the opening of the plenary session of the International Whaling Commission’s 54th annual meeting. The IWC conference closes Friday, ending a month of heated meetings and discussions that have taken place in Japan’s western port city of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Though unusual, this is not the first time conservationists have resorted to paid-for press coverage. Similar efforts to “air Japan’s dirty laundry” before the eyes of the world have met with some degree of success in protecting Japanese communities, coral reefs and forests threatened with environmental degradation.

Nevertheless, whaling does not lack well-aired, unwashed laundry. Every year, in the leadup to the IWC’s annual meeting, individuals, organizations and governments trade arguments for and against whaling. This year, Japanese whaling proponents are claiming whales are suffering from overpopulation, leading to starvation and mass beachings, and also that they are consuming valuable fish resources. They have also accused anti-whaling nations of using intimidation to secure votes from developing countries — and have alleged that the antiwhaling movement was begun to deflect anti-American criticism during the Vietnam War.

Critics of whaling, for their part, accuse Japan of using foreign aid to “buy” votes in the IWC, of misreporting whale catches and of mislabeling whale meat. They argue that harpoons cause slow and brutal death, and they dismiss the Japanese view of marine ecosystems as overly simplistic and flawed.

So what do some of the world’s top scientists think of all this? Below is the wording of the petition, with . . . indicating a cut for length.

An open letter to the government of Japan

Despite its obligation to comply with a global moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan has killed thousands of whales over the past decade, claiming an exemption for “scientific whaling” under international law. We, the undersigned scientists, believe Japan’s whale-research program fails to meet minimum standards for credible science. In particular:

We are concerned that Japan’s whaling program is not designed to answer scientific questions relevant to the management of whales; that Japan has refused to make the information it collects available for independent review; and that its research program lacks a testable hypothesis or other performance indicators consistent with accepted scientific standards.

Most of the data being gathered by Japan’s “scientific whaling” are obtainable by non-lethal means; it is possible, for example, to determine species, gender, population size, migration patterns, stock fidelity, and other key biological information without harming whales. . . .

The commercial nature of Japan’s whaling program conflicts with its scientific independence. Japan sells meat from the whales it kills on commercial markets and assigns “scientific whaling” quotas to individual whaling villages. These commercial ties create a profit incentive to kill whales even when no scientific need exists . . .

Japan has announced it will soon begin killing sei whales, an internationally listed endangered species, ostensibly to determine the whales’ diet. . . . There is no reasonable likelihood that killing additional sei whales now will add to what is already known about their diet.

By continuing to fund and carry out this program, Japan opens itself to serious charges that it is using the pretense of scientific research to evade its commitments to the world community. As scientists, we believe this compromises objective decision-making and undermines public confidence in the role of science to guide policy. Accordingly, we respectfully urge the Japanese government to suspend its “scientific whaling” program.


[21 individual scientists]

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