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Japan's Scientific Whaling: An Expensive Proposition

TOKYO—Japan's scientific whaling effort has cost taxpayers $378 million since 1987, even as demand for whale meat has shrunk and the research has proven of little value, according to a report released here on 5 February by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

A moratorium has suspended commercial whaling since 1986, but a clause in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) convention allows countries to hunt whales for research purposes. The meat can be sold to cover the cost of research, which in Japan is overseen by the Institute of Cetacean Research located here. Critics contend that scientific whale hunts by Japan and a few other countries are thinly disguised commercial whaling.

A quarter century of scientific whaling has shed little light on the creatures, said IFAW Japan Representative Naoko Funahashi at a press conference here to unveil the report. "There are very, very few findings which meet [scientific] aims," said Funahashi, a member of IWC's Scientific Committee. "Results from 'scientific whaling' are scant," agrees Leah Gerber, a marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University, Tempe. She says she doesn't know of any marine researchers—apart from those involved with the research whaling programs of Japan, Norway, and Iceland -- who believe that scientific whaling produces valuable results.

A telephone receptionist at the Institute of Cetacean Research said the institute will not comment on the report and declined to pass the call to public relations or other officials. But other backers of the scientific whaling program insist it has value. Masayuki Komatsu, a former Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official who is now at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies here, says that if the research results are weak, it is because the number of whales taken "is far too small to achieve scientific significance." Komatsu, who helped plan the scientific whaling program, says the numbers actually taken in Antarctic waters have been far short of Japan's current official target of 850 minke, 50 fin, and 50 humpback whales annually. (According to IWC data, the take has come close to those numbers only once: in 2005, when Japan harvested 866 whales in the Southern Ocean. Japan has also refrained from taking humpbacks in response to IWC pressure.) Numbers have dropped precipitously in the last 2 years because of interference by antiwhaling activists. If the planned number of whales could be killed and analyzed, Komatsu says, the data would shed light on the size and health of stocks, and the interaction of whales with their prey and the ecosystem.

Critics disagree. "It is well established in the scientific literature that there are many ways to study whale diet and condition without killing them," Gerber says. Most IWC science committee members, Funahashi adds, "do not see any reason to kill whales."

Opponents have also long condemned research whaling on conservation and humanitarian grounds. The IFAW report seeks to undermine the economic argument. "Whaling is an economic loser," said Patrick Ramage, IFAW's whale program director, at the press conference. In addition to an average of $9.8 million a year in subsidies, Japan's scientific whaling program in 2011 received $28.6 million from a supplemental budget intended to fund earthquake and tsunami relief, according to the report compiled by E-Square Inc., a Japanese public interest consultancy hired by IFAW. In the meantime, whale meat consumption in Japan has slumped to 1% of its 1960s peak and stockpiles of unsold whale meat have quadrupled over the past 15 years despite attempts to auction it off at bargain prices. As a result, the gap is growing between the Institute of Cetacean Research's expenses and its revenues from selling whale meat, states the report, which adds that the Fisheries Agency of Japan has had to steadily ramp up subsidies for research whaling. The IFAW investigation shows "that this industry is in the red, that it is losing money and that it is getting worse every year," Ramage said.

IFAW's report comes as an annual game of cat-and-mouse begins in the Southern Ocean. Japan's four-vessel whaling fleet is now in Antarctic waters hunting minke and fin whales. Chasing them are four vessels, a helicopter, and drones operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which hopes to reprise its successful campaigns of recent years to disrupt the hunt.