Why Japan Won't Save the Whales

During the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, starting today and ending Thursday in Anchorage, Alaska, few animal-lovers will vocally campaign for whaling to stop. Ever since the IWC voted in 1982 to suspend commercial whaling from 1986 on, most people have presumed that boats would no longer chase whales to exhaustion so that gunners could shoot them with explosive grenade harpoons. But in fact, Japan, Norway and Iceland never accepted the ban, and Japan is known to have killed about 10,000 whales since then. Supposedly, these whales have been needed as samples for scientific research, but all of the resulting whale-meat and other products are packaged and marketed for consumption in Japan.

This year, the government says it will take a total of 935 minke whales, 50 fins, and 50 humpbacks from the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, an area containing the oceans of the southern hemisphere below 40° South, in which commercial whaling is ostensibly prohibited. According to estimates published in the scientific journal Nature, the Japanese fleet is expected to kill 17,000 minkes, 820 fins, and 800 humpbacks over the next 18 years.

Meanwhile, Japan has launched a propaganda onslaught by the Institute of Cetacean Research, an arm of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, and the Japan Whaling Association, an industry group. Armed with brochures, reports, and books generated by ICR and the JWA, Japanese delegates have berated the attendees at dozens of high-level international meetings with their urgent news that hungry whales threaten world fish stocks and so should be culled. This notion has been accepted by an increasing number of governments (most of whom have received targeted aid from Japan). As a result, Japan has escalated its whaling program with the knowledge that no matter how much other governments protest, the IWC has no power to prevent it.

While the claim that fisheries are declining because whales consume too many fish may sound plausible to non-experts, it is ridiculous to marine scientists and has damaged the good name of Japanese scientific endeavor. In eighteen years of research, the Institute of Cetacean Research has produced just a few documents resembling serious scientific papers. Instead, the ICR and JWA have specialized in disinformation.

Before debunking the supposed whale menace, let's consider the whaling information supplied by the JWA's website. In its Q&A section, the JWA says Japan engages in some "small-type whaling outside IWC jurisdiction." This only occurs "outside" the IWC because Japan refuses to acknowledge IWC authority over all whales. And neither the minke whale itself (three times the size of an African elephant) nor the number of whales killed since the ban is "small." Japanese whalers get away with all of this by ruthlessly exploiting a loophole, enshrined in the 1946 treaty that created the IWC, that any number of whales can be killed "for scientific purposes" if any government decides to give Special Permits to its nationals.

Naturally, the JWA doesn't mention that Japan's fleet includes an 8,000-ton factory ship (for processing the carcasses), powerful, fast catcher boats, and refrigerated transport ships. And Japanese authorities consistently obstruct efforts from within the IWC to compel the use of less inhumane methods of slaughter. Laws requiring that poultry and livestock be stunned and quickly killed do not apply to whales; instead, whales experience protracted fear, stress, and often severe pain before they die, which can be many minutes after they are harpooned. According to observers of the Japanese minke whale hunts, it's typical for a catcher boat to pursue a whale for 30 minutes, or much longer, in order for the gunner to get within twenty to thirty yards of the targeted whale. Given the difficulty of accurately aiming harpoons in the extreme weather conditions of the Antarctic, the whale may require several shots before it dies, or it may escape wounded. Also, even those that evade harpooning undergo life-threatening stress.

Surprisingly, "scientific" whaling – that is, whaling conducted under the IWC loophole allowing unlimited numbers of whales to be killed if they are called scientific samples – can be even worse than "unscientific" whaling. For example, in the 2005/06 whaling season, a Greenpeace campaign ship filmed so-called "scientific whales" being held head down from the bow of the ship, in order to asphyxiate them. These whalers can and do ignore all the long-standing regulations of the IWC and its predecessors, such as minimum whale lengths, protected areas, and the prohibition of killing nursing mothers and calves. Indeed, Japanese officials assert that the fact that their catches include hundreds of pregnant and nursing females proves that the population of minke whales is thriving.

Japanese authorities insist that "there are 761,000 minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere," and this statistic is ubiquitous in the literature that they distribute; the JWA's web-site says that at 761,000, they are "abundant enough that marine management is needed." But that figure is disputed and two decades old. A second set of IWC surveys produced an estimate of little more than 200,000, and a third set yet another number. The scientists cannot explain the differences and have formally announced that they have no valid number for the southern minkes.

Japan has so far focused what it has called its "vote-consolidation" campaign on South Pacific islands, the Caribbean, Central America, and, most recently, francophone West Africa. Diplomats from these areas, which are recipients of heavy Japanese foreign aid, have become convinced that whales swim around looking for schools of tuna. International fisheries meetings now feature the shameful spectacle of these representatives making speeches about whales being desperately anxious to feed on their fish.

One widely-distributed ICR report called "Why Whale Research?" includes pictures of whale stomachs cut open, full of glistening fish, and this warning -- "As whales are increasing in number, their feeding behavior could be severely affecting fisheries, which poses a grave problem … It is now an issue of competition between whales and human beings over marine living resources." A chart shows whales consuming 249 to 436 million tons of prey annually, compared to 90 million tons landed yearly by fisheries. This argument fails the laugh test. Most of the baleen whales' food consists of tiny, shrimp-like animals known to fishermen as krill, and some similar species of what scientists call zooplankton. ICR scientists assume that up to half of the krill's weight is indigestible shell and thus double-up the consumption figures to meet the whales' presumed metabolic requirements; in fact, however, baleen whales have bacteria in their stomachs that digest the shell. The calculations made involve many more absurd assumptions, such as that the food consumption of a 150-ton blue whale is the same as the quantity of dead fish eaten by a 150-kg. bottlenose dolphin in an oceanarium multiplied by one thousand. If the Japanese government's propaganda were correct, then the removal from the ocean of nearly 200 million tons of baleen and sperm whales, which occurred during the heyday of whaling through the first half of the twentieth century, would have led to increases in fish stocks. There is no evidence whatsoever that this happened.

Documents like this ICR report have never been peer-reviewed, as in normal scientific practice, nor have they been considered by the IWC's Scientific Committee. In fact, an IWC scientific meeting that was boycotted by the Japanese delegation found no evidence that whales were having deleterious effects on fish stocks.

The whales-eat-fish hysteria is only the latest in a twenty-year series of gimmicks that Japan has been using to perpetuate its whaling industry. When whale populations have recovered sufficiently due to the 1986 whaling suspension -- maybe twenty years from now or less -- we can expect Japan to ramp up the scale of whale slaughter to at least the full capacity of its present fleet of whaling ships.

Since the seventies, when the whaling industry collapsed due to the near-eradication of the biggest whale species, many whale advocates have either engaged in wishful thinking or just forgotten that Antarctic whaling was, by far, the biggest and most profitable fishery ever. From 1930 to 1972, the biomass of slaughtered baleen and sperm whales totaled several hundred million tons; the annual market value of the products from them greatly exceeded that generated by any of the most abundant and popular fishes, such as tunas, salmons, pollock, cod, and herring. The Japanese now have a virtual monopoly of the use of the whale-rich Antarctic waters. Why wouldn't they be inclined to continue to subsidize their whaling fleet until the time when whales have multiplied enough that the industry can be profitable again?

Of course, any renewed profits will last only as long as the whales do. With Japan's history and current practices and policy as evidence, its future whaling will not be sustainable if it is to be profitable. At this year's IWC meeting, we expect Japan's delegation aggressively to press the false arguments that whales eat too many fish and that the increases in numbers of some whales are interfering with the viability of others, and so the whaling industry must cull them. This is an utter perversion of the modern idea of "ecosystem management."

The world is slowly waking up to the fact that fish stocks are crashing globally, imperiling future protein supplies and also the livelihoods of millions of fishers who depend on abundant and productive marine resources. As one of the largest producers, importers, and consumers of seafood, Japan could lead the way with conservation measures, and should do so in its own long-term interest. But for that to happen it would have to change its current policies on both whaling and fishing, and put its impressive intellectual forces into serious science, not the pseudoscience peddled by the ICR.