‘Scientific’ whaling needs better scrutiny – Expert reaction

Scientists are frustrated with the International Whaling Commission over the lack of science in Japan’s scientific whaling programme, and are calling for a new review system. 

Credit: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service

Japanese whalers are back in the Southern Ocean, aiming to kill 333 minke whales this year – purportedly for scientific purposes.

In a correspondence article in this week’s Nature, a selection of prominent representatives from the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee (IWC-SC), including a New Zealander, call this ‘science’ into question. They write:

“We believe that further discussion of special-permit whaling at IWC-SC under the present procedure – in which the opinion of proposers is afforded equal weight to that of referees – is a waste of time.

“The IWC urgently needs to develop a process of scientific review that results in clear decisions that can be respected by all.”

You can more about the letter on Scimex.org.

Japan’s new whaling programme was established after the International Court of Justice ruled the previous programme unscientific.

The SMC collected the following expert commentary.

Professor Liz Slooten, Department of Zoology, University of Otago, comments:

“Scientific whaling is not scientific. Scientific whaling is a loophole in the international whaling regulations, allowing whaling to continue despite the current moratorium on commercial whaling (which began in 1986). It has been controversial from the time Japan first started calling its whaling “scientific”, soon after the commercial whaling moratorium started.

“When I first joined the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission in 1992, I was surprised to discover that Japan is under no obligation to respond to criticism on the scientific whaling proposals it submits to the IWC. Japan decides whether to go whaling and how many whales they will kill. The IWC can neither reject a scientific whaling proposal, nor set a quota for the number of whales that can be taken.

“The Scientific Committee has become increasingly critical of scientific whaling, with several highly critical articles published in scientific journals. The long list of problems, discussed at length by the Scientific Committee of more than 200 international experts, includes the fact that the research questions are poorly defined and not directly relevant to the management of whaling. The information gathered in scientific whaling is in the “interesting to know” rather than “need to know” category. All of the data required to set whaling quotas and ensure they are sustainable can be gathered using non-lethal research methods, including population surveys, photography, sound recordings etc.

“Scientific whaling projects usually have very poor sampling design, lack testable hypotheses and make inappropriate use of analysis methods such as ecosystem models. For example, assuming that whales, rather than the fishing industry, are responsible for worldwide declines in fish populations. Other scientists have carried out scientifically robust testing to determine the relative effect of fishing and whale feeding on populations of fish and krill.

“A standard way to measure the success or failure of a research programme is the number of publications, in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Scientific whaling has a woefully poor record of publishing its results. Most reports are unpublished, not peer reviewed and/or irrelevant. A lack of performance criteria makes it virtually impossible to determine whether the research has succeeded or failed.

“Last year, the International Court of Justice also ruled against scientific whaling. With the IWC’s scientific body showing it’s not scientific and the ICJ concluding it’s not legal, one might have expected Japan to stop scientific whaling. Then again, one might have expected New Zealand to stop killing critically endangered Maui dolphins, found only in NZ waters, in fishing nets. The Scientific Committee of the IWC has been urging NZ to this since 2012. All of this suggests that politics has a much stronger effect on marine conservation than science.”

Dr Rochelle Constantine, Director, Joint Graduate School in Coastal and Marine Science, University of Auckland, comments:

“This recent correspondence is an indication of how frustrated many members of the IWC committee have become with Japan ignoring advice from multiple robust scientific reviews of their research; it is now considered a waste of time.

“The Japanese Government has consistently dismissed any comments that are contrary to their objectives in their lethal scientific whaling programmes, including the recent International Court of Justice ruling.

“The Scientific Committee at the IWC has for many years discussed  Japan’s requests and has had very solid scientific reasons for rejecting their programmes as useful science.

“The International Whaling Commission has a clause that allows member states to issue themselves a permit to kill whales for research purposes. Japan uses this clause to undertake their lethal research programmes including the latest; NEWREP-A.

“There has been a dedicated effort by many scientists to develop non-lethal research techniques to answer questions about whales’ role in ecosystems and population recovery after the devastating consequences of commercial whaling.

“We now regularly use small tissue biopsies to determine age, abundance, diet, stock structure and pregnancy rates and satellite tags can tell us about whales habitat use, migration paths and feeding grounds. None of these require us to kill whales yet can answer important questions about these animals.

“Currently humpback whales that migrated past the Kermadec Islands are sending satellite tag transmissions revealing their feeding ground locations in Antarctica. This work led by Dr Rochelle Constantine from the University of Auckland is using non-lethal methods via skin biopsies, photo-identification and satellite telemetry to reveal the long migration between Oceania and Antarctica and reveal feeding grounds between the Ross Sea region and the Antarctic Peninsula.

“Twelve tags are still transmitting data over 3 months after their deployment and we are learning more about these whales alive than dead.”

Joanna Mossop, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“I appreciate the frustration that the scientists must be feeling that Japan has ignored the weight of scientific opinion.  However even an enhanced scientific committee process would not change the fact that the decision to proceed with the whaling programme is primarily a political decision.

“In relation to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision, it is important to remember that the ICJ’s decision in the case was that Japan had failed to demonstrate that the previous JARPA II programme was not reasonable in light of its purpose.  It clearly anticipated that Japan could conduct scientific permit whaling if the programme was reasonable. The Court did not leave it open for the parties to come back to the ICJ if they disagreed about a future programme, and Japan has since withdrawn its acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court for these types of disputes. Therefore at present there is no obvious way to take Japan back to the International Court of Justice in relation to the new programme.

“The ICJ decision did set out a number of criteria that can be used to assess the reasonableness of other programmes. The Scientific Committee’s expert panel and report on NEWREP-A [the new whaling programme] made it clear that the majority of members did not agree that NEWREP-A met the criteria.

“A recent panel of legal experts also concluded that the new programme was unlawful in light of the ICJ decision. Unfortunately, at the present time it seems that diplomacy is the main option for seeking to resolve the issue.”

Liz Slooten: Prof Slooten is a member of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission
Rochelle Constantine: I am the NZ representative on the Scientific Steering Committee of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership – International Whaling Commission and Chair of the Humpback Whale Connectivity Project dedicated to non-lethal whale research in the Southern Ocean. I have current research projects with authors Philip Clapham and Scott Baker.