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In 2001, a crew member aboard a Japanese scientific whaling vessel—midway through dissecting an Antarctic minke whale—holds a sign to onlookers. Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy Stock Photo
In 2001, a crew member aboard a Japanese scientific whaling vessel—midway through dissecting an Antarctic minke whale—holds a sign to onlookers. Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy Stock Photo

What’s the True Scientific Value of Scientific Whaling?

A new study shows that countries that participate in lethal scientific whaling do not produce superior scientific research.

Authored by

by Larry Pynn

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In a world where scientists are increasingly seeking out noninvasive techniques for wildlife research, the continued killing of whales in the name of science stirs international controversy. At the crux of the issue is the question of whether lethal techniques actually offer insight and information that is inaccessible through other means. A new analysis by Simon Fraser University marine ecologist Isabelle Côté and Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist Corinna Favaro shows that the scientific value of scientific whaling may be lower than its proponents claim.

Since 1982, when commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), only a few nations have engaged in large-scale commercial and scientific whaling: Japan, Iceland, and Norway. These countries have issued whaling science permits for species including common minke, Antarctic minke, fin, sei, humpback, sperm, and Bryde’s whales.

The chief proponent of scientific whaling is Japan. The country argues that lethal scientific techniques are the best way to prove the sustainability of commercial whaling of some species. Lethal scientific whaling allows an examination of the whale’s stomach contents. Combined with information on length, weight, and age, scientists say they can calculate environmentally sustainable hunting levels. (Meat from the whales is sold commercially to help subsidize the program.)

In 2010, the Australian government challenged Japan’s stance at the United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. In 2014, the court ruled that Japan’s killing of whales in the Antarctic is not “for purposes of scientific research,” and that the country is violating the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. The court also found that Japan had not adequately considered non-lethal methods of research or the feasibility of a smaller lethal harvest to achieve its research objectives, and had produced “limited scientific output to date.”

In their research, Côté and Favaro tried to calculate the actual scientific output of whaling by comparing the amount and perceived quality of scientific research produced by whaling and non-whaling nations. To do so, they looked at a large sample of papers, books, book chapters, and reports published from 1986 to 2013. The pair considered 541 scientific publications that directly related to the management goals of scientific whaling as defined by the IWC, and another 297 publications that related to whale ecology and conservation, but were not directly related to IWC management.

Some of what they found falls in line with the court’s stance: the actual scientific output of the whaling nations isn’t superior to that of countries that do not use lethal techniques (Canada, the United States, Australia, Sweden, and the Netherlands). All nations in the study ranked within the top 10 to 20 of the Human Development Index in recent years, and have extensive coastlines and strong maritime traditions.

They found that both whaling and non-whaling countries contribute fairly equally to the corpus of whale science publications. While whaling nations produced more studies directly related to IWC permit goals—an average of 82 compared to 59 for non-whaling nations—the individual variations per country were so wide the researchers concluded the averages were not statistically different.

Additionally, they found that only one-third of publications by whaling countries relevant to IWC goals made it into peer-reviewed publications—the gold standard of scientific research. This was half the acceptance rate of non-whaling countries.

Côté and Favaro also found that scientific publications produced by whaling countries were cited about four times less than those by non-whaling nations, suggesting other scientists are drawing on the research less often. The study concluded the quality of the science produced by whaling nations is inferior and “less discoverable or less useful to whale researchers” than studies by non-whaling nations.

The researchers acknowledge the possibility that there may be a bias against research by whaling nations, such that studies that rely on lethal techniques are shut out of peer-reviewed publications or ignored by other researchers.

However, Côté and Favaro were surprised to learn that about half of the science from whaling nations actually involved non-lethal methods (compared to 93 percent for non-whaling nations).

The office of the IWC’s scientific committee in England declined to comment on the study.

However Phillip Clapham, a member of the IWC’s scientific committee and leader of the Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, says there are other reasons whaling countries’ research may differ from that of non-whaling nations. He says that the management goals of the IWC “are often very different” from those of whaling countries, and that it is member states that issue permits and set goals for whaling—with no permission needed from the IWC.

Clapham says it is difficult to make direct comparisons between scientific papers produced by whaling and non-whaling nations. “Japanese scientists … have published numerous studies on arcane (and sometimes quite bizarre) topics in reproductive physiology that have no relevance whatsoever to management or to any primary scientific study of whales,” Clapham argues.

Very few international peer-reviewed papers are produced by scientific whaling programs that directly relate to the primary management needs of the IWC, he continues. However, almost all of those studies could have been conducted “as easily or better through widely used non-lethal methods,” he argues.

As for Côté, she says the study sought to provide unbiased data to settle a long-standing debate, but the results can be used by either side to support their positions. “We’ve probably poured more oil rather than water on the fire,” she says.

Meanwhile, whaling continues in the name of science. When Japan submitted a request in 2015 to slaughter 3,996 minke whales over 12 years, the IWC said it needed more information. Japan went ahead anyway, and has killed 333 minke whales this year.