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Minke whale

Minke whale

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Japan says it will hunt whales despite science panel’s opposition

In an unprecedented move, an expert panel that advises the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC’s) Scientific Committee has rejected Japan’s latest plan for resuming the killing of minke whales in the Antarctic. Japan, however, says it will continue with its whaling plans.

The panel’s nonbinding finding, released this week, “is a stunner,” says Phil Clapham, a cetacean biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, Washington. “Never before has a body associated with the Scientific Committee told Japan that they have failed to demonstrate a need for killing whales.”

Japan has long argued that its whaling activities are necessary for scientific research. It killed some 10,000 minke whales in the Antarctic between 1987 and 2014, for example, citing a special IWC clause that permits “scientific whaling.” That program took a legal blow in 2014, however, when Australia won a ruling from the International Court of Justice that Japan’s harpooning project was not for “purposes of scientific research.” As a result, Japan ended its existing Antarctic whaling program and this year collected only nonlethal samples from minke whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. (Japan runs a parallel program in the North Pacific, where it also hunts minke whales for research. That program was not part of the IWC ruling, although many scientists argue that it has the same problems—that is, it is less about research and more about killing whales.)

But Japanese officials also prepared a new plan for future research whaling in the Antarctic and submitted it to the expert panel, as required by IWC rules. The plan calls for killing 333 minke whales annually over the next 12 years—down from their previous annual target of 935 minke and 100 fin and humpback whales. The kill would help address two broad research objectives, argued scientists at Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research. One is to allow researchers to collect additional data on minke whales, including their stomach contents and age at which they attain sexual maturity, to determine sustainable minke catch quotas if commercial whaling were to resume. Their second goal is to enable scientists to investigate the whales’ role in the Antarctic marine ecosystem.

The panel, meeting in February in Tokyo, found the plan wanting. Japan “does not demonstrate the need for lethal sampling” to meet its research objectives, the group concluded in its report.

In particular, the panel argued that the Japanese scientists had not provided sufficient information to evaluate either of the proposed research objectives. It recommended that Japan suspend its scientific whaling program for 2 or more years while improving the proposal, and test the use of nonlethal methods—such as using biopsy darts to retrieve blubber samples from living whales—to address their questions.

Whale biologists and conservationists applauded the news. “It’s 2015. You don’t need to be a scientific expert to know there’s no need to slaughter whales in the Southern Ocean,” said Patrick Ramage, whale program director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in a press release.

Japanese officials, however, were unbowed. They agreed to include some of the panel’s recommendations in a revised proposal to be presented to IWC’s full Scientific Committee next month, along with additional data. But in its response to the panel’s review, the government of Japan said that this year’s nonlethal study “has been completed and it has demonstrated the need for lethal sampling.” And Japan doesn’t need approval from the panel—or IWC’s Scientific Committee—to forge ahead, because IWC’s “scientific whaling” clause leaves it up to each country to oversee such studies.

The entire exercise has irritated at least one of the expert panelists: Andrew Brierley, a marine ecologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom. “I contributed in good faith to what I thought was an independent review panel, such as those I’ve been on for the National Science Foundation,” and other institutions, he says. But at the outset, other panelists warned him that Japan’s whaling was inevitable and that their review was a waste of time. “We were made unwilling collaborators in a process that’s moving toward approval,” Brierley says.

Meanwhile, Japan’s whaling fleet is already scheduled to depart for the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary later this year and begin a new hunt for minke whales.