Now what for Southern Ocean whaling?

The International Court of Justice recently ruled that Japan stop its scientific whaling program in the Antarctic. The Court found that the whale killing undertaken by Japan was not “for purposes of scientific research” as defined by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. However, the Court found that scientific research on whales can include lethal methods provided that the size of the “lethal sampling…is reasonable in relation to achieving the programme’s stated research objectives”.

In Australia, opposition to lethal whaling is bi-partisan. Former attorney-general Mark Dreyfus recently called on the Federal government to discuss collaborative, non-lethal whale research with Japan to avoid the killing of more whales, but it is believed that Prime Minister Abbott did not raise the topic with the Japanese government on his recent trip to Japan. Despite this, the 2014-15 Budget appears ‘whale-friendly’. There is a new Whale and Dolphin Protection Plan, including $750,000 for a National Whale Stranding Action Plan. The Department of Environment’s objectives and deliverables include international collaboration to help whale conservation and to conclude “all forms of commercial whaling” (page 43). The International Whale Science Initiative (associated with the International Whaling and the Marine Mammal Conservation Initiatives Program, which aims to “deliver valuable, non-lethal whale research on an international scale, demonstrating that whales do not need to be killed in the name of science”) will receive $1 million in the 2014-15 financial year. However, there is no money for this initiative in the forward estimates. This could make it difficult for us to achieve successful scientific collaborations.

Following the court’s decision, the Japanese have stopped their current Antarctic whaling activities. They plan on conducting non-lethal research in the Southern Hemisphere in the 2014-15 season but are redesigning their scientific program so they can resume whaling in 2015-16. This raises the question:  is it possible for Japan to fulfil its scientific objectives through non-lethal research? And what are the scientific objectives anyway?

The stated goals of Japan’s current research program, the Second Phase of the Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Antarctic (JARPA II) are:

1) Monitoring the Antarctic ecosystem,

2) Modelling competition among whale species and developing future management objectives,

3) Elucidation of temporal and spatial changes in stock structure and

4) Improving the management procedure for the Antarctic minke whale stocks.

In the International Court of Justice, Japan claimed that lethal sampling is necessary to answer their first two research questions. They argued that internal organs and stomach contents are required, e.g. dissection of the uterus will reveal if a female whale is pregnant, ear plugs are used to determine age, stomach contents give information on diet, and the thickness of blubber can indicate how much food is available.  However, the Japanese government admitted that non-lethal methods (biopsy samples and visual survey data) are sufficient to gather the required information on the other two whale species in their program (humpback and fin whales).  As the International Court of Justice pointed out, this raises doubts about whether the lethal sampling of minke whales is absolutely necessary for Japan to fulfil its scientific aims.

Japan argues that the lethal sampling it has undertaken has provided valuable scientific information on minke whales, such as genetic and age information. The value of the data itself is not in question, but lethal sampling is not required to gain genetic data – a small biopsy dart sample of skin and blubber easily provides enough tissue for genetic analyses. Japanese scientists already carry out biopsy sampling of blue, fin and humpback whales as part of the JARPA II program. Recent Australian and American research demonstrates that genetic information can be used to determine the age of humpback whales. The authors believe that this work is widely applicable, suggesting that the same development method could be used to create a genetic age-identification system for other species.

Non-lethal methods are also available to determine pregnancy rates, diet, and food availability, although there is argument from the Japanese about whether these methods are as effective. Pregnant minke whales have much more progesterone in their blubber than male or non-pregnant females, so pregnancy can be determined from biopsy samples alone. In right whales (another species), hormone levels in faecal samples can identify whether a female is pregnant or lactating. Faecal samples also give information on diet, while visual analysis (e.g. photos taken from planes) can reveal the whale’s condition. These last two methods are non-invasive, requiring no contact whatsoever with the whale.

Scientific methods are constantly developing. It may have been necessary to use lethal sampling to fulfil program aims when Japan started scientific whaling. However, with application of new methods and scientific collaboration (including hopefully with Australia), it seems that lethal sampling is not currently required for Japan to gain the knowledge it desires.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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