Hakai Magazine

People standing ontop of a whale on a beach infront of the ocean
Scientists around the world work with samples collected by commercial whalers. Photo by Arctic Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The Inconsistent Ethics of Whale Research

Countries that formally oppose whaling also routinely fund scientific research that relies on the products of whaling.

Authored by

by Kieran Mulvaney

Article body copy

Nearly 40 years after a majority of the member states of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted in 1982 to suspend commercial whaling indefinitely, whaling continues, albeit to a lesser extent—as does scientific research using the products of that whaling. And according to a new study, that research is not confined to scientists from whaling nations: researchers from countries whose governments boast staunch anti-whaling policies are also working with whaling companies to procure meat, tissue, and other whale products for research.

The study’s authors reviewed 35 peer-reviewed papers and conference abstracts describing research that relied on products from Icelandic whaling since 2003, when that country resumed whaling following an 11-year hiatus. They argue that their findings highlight “the need for improved ethical guidelines for whale research involving samples or data from controversial sources such as Icelandic whaling.”

Of 59 institutions involved in the research identified in the study, almost half were from four countries—Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These countries supported the 1982 vote and formally objected to the fact that when Iceland resumed whaling in 2003 it did so after rejoining the IWC. Of the papers the authors looked at, approximately half were partly funded by government grants from one or more of those countries.

The goal of the paper is not to name and shame the individual scientists who are using the products of whaling in their research. Instead, study coauthor Vassili Papastavrou of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who wrote the paper with independent whale researcher Conor Ryan and Peter Sand at LMU Munich in Germany, argues that the thicket of ethical and legal issues surrounding whaling is too tangled to expect individual scientists to navigate it by themselves.

“There’s a whole load of international law around whales and the decisions that have been taken, and these are all beyond the skill set of the average academic,” Papastavrou insists. “We’re not saying what’s right or wrong. We’re not the arbiters. But there really is a need for a proper set of ethical guidelines to help everyone involved work out what to do.”

The issue is more than one of mere inconsistency, says Hal Whitehead, a biologist and whale expert at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who was not involved in the study. While some researchers may excuse using the products of whaling on the grounds that those whales were going to be killed anyway, their very involvement may make future whaling more likely, he says.

“It is a problem when the science that is being done on the products of whaling is being used to justify the whaling,” he says.

Two guidelines, Papastavrou argues, would prevent a situation in which governments with anti-whaling policies are funding research that relies on the whaling they oppose.

For one, says Papastavrou, “I think any government funding should have a requirement for a proper ethical examination of what the research is. And is what you’re proposing to do legal in your own country?” The latter would, he argues, bring such research into line with standards established in the past few decades by the medical research community, which now prohibits offshoring medical trials to countries with less strict regulations. Additionally, he and his coauthors quote an American Medical Association guideline that states, “If data from unethical experiments can be replaced by data from ethically sound research and achieve the same ends, then such must be done.”

One of the scientists whose work was included in the analysis, Alex Aguilar at the University of Barcelona in Spain, questions what he sees as Papastavrou and his colleagues’ assumption of a consensus that commercial whaling is unethical. Aguilar argues that commercial whaling “is a perfectly acceptable activity for many IWC member countries.”

Aguilar also points out that the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s guidelines for the treatment of marine mammals in field research state that, where possible, activities such as hunting “should be utilized as a source of material for scientific studies of marine mammals.”

In contrast, another researcher whose work was cited by Papastavrou and colleagues says that he does feel there should be “more ethical guidelines instituted by journals as well as professional societies.”

The researcher, who asked not to be named out of concern for unintentionally embarrassing or besmirching colleagues, previously was attracted by the idea that using meat and tissue samples to procure data about whale biology could potentially lead to better conservation efforts.

More recently, however, his stance has changed. “Aided not only by my own conscience and evolution as a scholar, but also from a sea change in scientific methods and perspective, I am now much less comfortable using such tissues of questionable provenance than ever before. Not only would I not use such tissues again, but I would be happiest if no one did.”