If you’ve been following the tragic farce that is Japan’s official stance on whaling, you’ll know that the arguments made by the country’s Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR) to try and justify the hunting of whales have been soundly rejected. Japan maintains it needs to kill whales as part of a scientific research program to learn more about whale populations and determine if larger-scale commercial whaling is sustainable. Few people really believe this and even the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that Japan’s whaling program was not scientific. Since 2005, the judges said, some 3,600 minke whales have been killed, and just two research papers have been published.

Many supporters of whaling don’t even claim that the program is useful for gathering scientific data. Those who support whaling often cite tradition and culture as reasons for continuing to hunt whales. In fact, whaling doesn’t have a significant history in Japan. It was conducted on a very small scale until after World War II, and then only on a larger scale for 20 years or so.

So I was interested to see a paper published last week suggesting that Japan had falsified its whaling data for whale catches in the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers behind the paper claim Japan all but lied to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) about the whales it was catching.

I spoke to Phillip Clapham, leader of the Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, about what he had uncovered.

Clapham and his colleague, Yulia Ivashchenko, compared the length data of whales captured by the Soviet whaling fleet in the 1960s and ’70s with that reported by Japan to the IWC. They found a large mismatch, with the whales caught by Japanese vessels reportedly much longer than the whales recorded by the Soviet boats. The researchers concluded that the difference in length data could only be explained if the Japanese fishing boats had exaggerated the lengths of their catches so that it looked like they were catching legal-sized animals. “It indicates cheating on a large scale,” Clapham says. Clapham and Ivashchenko’s study is published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

Why would Japanese whaling vessels misreport their catches? “Presumably because they wanted to kill as many whales as possible, including undersized animals — those under the IWC’s minimum legal length, which was instituted to protect females,” Clapham says. “That required them to fake the lengths of many of the whales in the catch.”

Clapham knows more than most about the truth behind Japan’s whaling program. Last year, he published a study suggesting that Japan operated a large-scale, illegal whaling program in the North Pacific in the 1960s. Then, as now, whaling was conducted by ships dedicated to harpooning and catching the animals, operating in tandem with a factory ship, where the whales were butchered.

How on earth could Japanese whalers get away with such behavior? The answer is simple: No entity existed to check the validity of the catches until 1972, when the International Observer Scheme was introduced.

Yet even when this system was introduced, Japanese vessels allegedly continued to falsify data beyond 1972. How?

“This system had an independent inspector on board — one of a different nationality than the factory ship, so, in theory, it ruled out cheating,” Clapham says. “But we know from Soviet biologists that it didn’t entirely. Inspectors couldn’t be on the processing deck 24 hours a day and they were sometimes intentionally distracted with ‘celebrations’ by officers who took them to drink in their cabin when something illegal was about to come aboard.”

Japanese whaling has changed — to an extent. As mentioned earlier, the International Court of Justice decided that Japan’s whaling program was not scientific in 2014, but it did not ban research whaling altogether. The IWC allows whaling by indigenous people, and this provision is applied to Greenland and Alaska. It also theoretically allows whaling for research purposes, which is how Japan tries to justify its activities.

Since Japan’s (privately run) Institute for Cetacean Research sets its own quotas for the number of whales its boats can catch, there aren’t rules to break like there were in the 1960s and ’70s. Well, that’s not quite true. It’s not permitted to catch lactating females and calves, although Clapham says there’s good photographic evidence that this does happen. Incidentally, in March this year, the Fisheries Agency reported that Japan’s Antarctic whaling fleet caught 230 female minke whales, 90 percent of which were pregnant.

The ban on commercial whaling has allowed whale numbers to rebound after dropping to dangerously low levels. Whale numbers have also been increasing in the Arctic as a result of sea-ice loss. These factors will increase the number of calls for the ban on commercial whaling to be lifted. That would cause no end of problems, Clapham says. “The whaling nations today maintain that the system of inspection proposed should commercial whaling resume is adequate, yet it’s clear from genetic analysis of what’s being sold in the Japanese market that there’s stuff there that you can’t account for through the whaling we know about,” Clapham says.

Japan and the other whaling countries have refused to accept a truly independent, third-party system that monitors every step, from the catch to the market.

Polls indicate that most people in Japan don’t care one way or another about whaling. Perhaps the public would feel more strongly if they knew more about what happened in the 1960s and ’70s. Many people were misled back then, because Japanese whalers are believed to have fudged the data on the length of whales they were catching. I hope this realization will help shift the mood in Japan from indifference to disgust.

Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”). Follow Rowan on Twitter @rowhoop.

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