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The whale-catching vessel <i>Yushin Maru</i> with a dead whale in 2008. Critics say Japan doesn’t listen to scientific advice on its research whaling program.

The whale-catching vessel Yushin Maru with a dead whale in 2008. Critics say Japan doesn’t listen to scientific advice on its research whaling program.

Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia

Calling it ‘a waste of time,’ researchers call for end to scientific whaling reviews

Thirty-two scientists are calling for an end to the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC’s) current program for reviewing “scientific whaling” proposals.

In a letter to the editor in today’s Nature, the researchers, who are members of IWC’s Scientific Committee, argue that IWC’s current review process “is a waste of time” and sorely in need of revision.

A prominent case in point, the authors say, is IWC’s experience with Japan’s controversial research whaling programs: Although IWC rules have required a lengthy scientific review of that effort, which began in 1987, the process has also allowed Japanese researchers to essentially ignore the critique.

“Japan … has failed to alter its plans in any meaningful way and is proceeding to kill whales under a self-determined quota,” the authors write.

“It’s what happens year after year,” says Andrew Brierley, a pelagic ecologist at University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, and one of the letter’s authors. The scientists are “frustrated because the recommendations of the expert panel IWC convened are ignored,” he says.

But Joji Morishita, director general of Japan’s National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries, says that Japan’s cetacean scientists “think the review process is quite reasonable, and has helped shape our research and implementation.” And IWC said “the review process has strong scientific merit,” in a statement to ScienceInsider.

Meaningful reviews?

Although IWC enacted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, one provision in its conventions allows member nations to kill whales for research. IWC doesn’t issue permits for such hunts—the individual countries do. Although Norway and Iceland (which did not agree to the moratorium) also kill whales, Japan is the lone nation to claim it is whaling for scientific purposes. (The meat collected from the hunts is sold in Japan.)

Because Japan says it is doing science, it submits its research proposals to IWC’s Scientific Committee to be peer reviewed. The proposals are first examined by an independent panel of experts. Last year, a panel reviewing Japan’s most recent proposal concluded that “lethal sampling had not been justified,” write the authors of the Nature letter.

Japanese researchers say they are studying such things as the cetaceans’ health, ages, and diets, and which whales belong to which populations. It’s the kind of information that biologists collect when managing animals for sustainable hunts.

The panel, however, recommended that Japan explore other nonlethal methods—already widely used by other cetacean scientists—for collecting that information. Scientists could use darts to collect tissue samples, for instance, or collect feces to determine what the whales are eating.

Japan has looked at such methods, says Morishita, noting that IWC’s full scientific committee ultimately “gave us a total of 29 recommendations. … We responded to all of them, as we are required.”

Brierley, however, says the back-and-forth produced little change. He joined the expert panel “in good faith,” he says, and then discovered that “it wasn’t a genuine peer review. It doesn’t follow the standard scientific review process.”

The procedure is flawed, the authors argue, because at the second stage, when IWC's science committee meets, it gives equal weight to the opinions of the proposers and the expert panel of referees, and the reviews are nonbinding. If Japan were actually following IWC’s recommendations, Brierley says, it would now be trying to answer its research questions with nonlethal methods.

In its statement, IWC points out its reviews and reports “have been widely debated and referenced by parties on all sides of the [scientific whaling] debate including the 2014 ruling of the International Court of Justice,” which found that Japan’s whaling program was not about science.

Japan suspended part of its whaling program after that ruling, but has since resumed hunting. Japanese whalers are now in the Southern Ocean, targeting 333 minke whales for the research program; it calls for killing 333 minke whales annually for the next 12 years. Since 1987, Japan has killed 10,712 minke whales for science.