Japan’s fleet known for capturing whales for research returned to shore this week and confirmed it killed more than 300 minke whales, including pregnant specimens, triggering international condemnation.
Every year, Japan undertakes what it has labeled as a scientific hunt for whales in the Southern Ocean. However, in 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled Japan should stop. Instead, Japan ignored the ruling last year and announced it would continue whaling while reducing the number of whales it would kill by two-thirds to 333.
On Thursday, Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research detailed that out of the 333 minke whales it killed, 230 were females, and that more than 90 percent of those were pregnant. The agency said the “survey” took place without the interference of anti-whaling organizations, noting it also conducted non-lethal research of blue whales, fin whales, southern right whale, humpback and killer whales. This non-lethal research included biopsies and satellite labeling experiments.
Still, countries, scientists, and multiple environmental organizations have condemned the killings and questioned the research. Whaling “is in my view abhorrent and a throwback to an earlier age,” Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt told The Guardian. “There is no scientific justification for lethal research.”
Australia has said that Japan’s whale research program is less about science and more about exploiting a legal loophole for selling whale meat for commercial purposes. Australia even told ICJ that in undertaking its annual hunt, Japan was ignoring the 1986 moratorium “on taking, killing or treating of whales, except minke whales, by factory ships or whale catchers attached to factory ships.” Japan started its whaling program in 1987.
Minke whales are the smallest member of the rorqual family of whales. Whalers turned their attention to minke whales only in recent decades after the larger whale species became depleted.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara
Andrew Brierley, a biologist and professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, also doubts the science of Japan’s whaling program. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Brierly said Japan’s scientific rationale for whaling is poor. “The science is not sufficiently persuasive and yet they go ahead and shoot whales on the basis of science, I mean is a nonsense.”
Brierley is one of 32 scientists who in January called for an end to the International Whaling Commission’s program that reviews Japan’s scientific whaling proposals. In a letter to the editor in the journal Nature, the researchers — who are members of IWC’s Scientific Committee — said the IWC’s review process “is a waste of time.” He said a group of scientists will likely submit a resolution against the program during the IWC June meeting.
“You would think that after [they] shot 10,000 plus minke whales there would be some really informative science there, but the fact is there isn’t,” said Brierley. For example, Japanese scientists at times try to measure how healthy the whale population is by the food they found in the stomach, he said, but to make accurate inferences you need a regular set of samples from the same locations taken at the same time of year. Since vessels and whales are moving during the hunt, Brierley said, “they are shooting whales in different locations, at different times, and the food availability won’t be consistent throughout the area.”
These expeditions are “only viable because of money that they raise from the sale of the meat, so I mean, you can draw your own conclusions from that,” Brierley added. Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Japan is trying to prove the whale population is large enough to sustain a return to commercial hunting as the meat ends up on restaurants and is served in school lunches.
However, the Christian Science Monitor reported in 2014 that 95 percent of Japanese never or rarely eat whale meat and 88.8 percent of Japanese had not bought whale meat that year. Japanese may have welcomed whale meat on their plates after World War II, yet almost 10 million pounds of unsold whale meat now sits in freezers at ports, according to the Monitor.
After its recent expedition, Japan Institute of Cetacean Research said the high pregnancy rate of minke whales suggests the population is healthy. The agency did not reply to a request for comment.