Minke whale

Minke whale

Len2040/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Scientists renew objections to Japan’s whaling program

For the third time in 15 months, experts have concluded there is no justification for Japan to kill whales for research purposes. But the country's lethal scientific whaling effort seems poised to resume with the 2015 to 2016 Southern Ocean hunting season anyway.

The latest strike against lethal sampling is buried in an annex to today's report from the annual meeting of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). In the annex, 44 scientists from 18 of the 33 countries attending the session on Japan's research whaling program wrote, “the need for lethal sampling has not been demonstrated.”

Japan, an IWC member state, contends that the scientific committee has no legal basis to approve or reject a research plan. An IWC statement accompanying the report says: “It was not possible for the Scientific Committee to reach a consensus view of the overall program.”

“The outcome, with Japan disagreeing with expert panel conclusions about a lack of justification for lethal sampling, was not a surprise,” says Phil Clapham, a cetacean biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, Washington. “There is very little doubt that Japan will go whaling in the next Antarctic season no matter what experts say about it.”

In response to declining numbers of certain whale species, IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. Ever since, Japan has used a clause in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to conduct a research program that to date has killed 14,000 whales, mostly minke, to gather data on animal age, stomach contents, and other indicators it uses to make the case that whales can be sustainably harvested. Whaling opponents claim such data or close proxies can be gathered through nonlethal means and that Japan's research program is commercial whaling under another name. (The whale meat is sold to partially recoup the cost of the expeditions.)

Japan’s whaling program suffered a severe setback on 31 March 2014 when The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) found the lethal sampling was not justified “for purposes of scientific research.” The court ordered Japan to halt the Antarctic program. (Japan also has a smaller research whaling effort in the North Pacific that was not covered by ICJ's ruling.)

Japan complied and conducted only nonlethal sampling during the past Antarctic season. But it also drew up a New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean (NEWREP-A) that calls for taking 333 minke whales a year for the next 12 years in addition to other nonlethal research. At a briefing earlier this year, Joji Morishita, Japan’s representative to IWC, said that the plan was crafted to conform to the ICJ ruling, which, in Japan's view, did not rule out lethal sampling per se but called for stronger scientific justification.

This past February, an IWC expert panel reviewed NEWREP-A and found that it “does not demonstrate the need for lethal sampling to achieve [program] objectives.”

The IWC scientific committee took up NEWREP-A, with some additional analyses provided by the Japanese, and the expert panel's report during its annual meeting, held in San Diego, California, 19 May to 3 June. The committee's report, released today, simply gives the comments “pro” and “con” with no definitive bottom line. “Some members concluded that commencement of lethal sampling in the 2015/16 season was not justified,” the report says, adding that other members concluded “that there is no reason to postpone immediate initiation” of NEWREP-A. The lack of a strong position led the 44 scientists to sign the statement included in the annex. “That is a very clear majority (of those in attendance) and a clear statement about NEWREP-A,” says Naoko Funahashi, Japan representative for the conservation group International Fund for Animal Welfare, which opposes all whaling as inherently cruel. “I hope Japan will come back [to the scientific committee] with more analysis, reasoning, and justification” for lethal sampling, says Funahashi, who is a committee-invited participant. “But they are likely to just go on with the kill.”

The entire IWC will take up the issue when it meets in September 2016.

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