Science

Japan restart whaling for ‘research purposes’

Mayor Tomoaki Nakao showed strong support for the four ships granted a permit by the Japanese government for ‘scientific whaling’ that set off from his city of Shimonoseki last week, the start of a 12 year programme that aims to harvest nearly 4000 antarctic minke whales. Yet this illegal hunt has been condemned by almost everyone else as a poorly made excuse to continue commercial whaling.

In March 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled against allowing Japan to issue a permit allowing whaling for what the Japanese government claimed was for “research purposes”. The ICJ ruled that the whaling programme was “not scientific” and in breach of the ban on whaling established in the 1986 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), of which Japan is a member state.

However, in October 2014 Japan announced to the UN it would defy the ruling. They established a new programme called the New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean (NEWREP-A). It was established with an aim of hunting 333 antarctic minke whales a year for 12 years in order to prove that the species would not be endangered by commercially hunting. The Japanese government argues that the ICJ has no legal justification to either approve or reject research plans, and that whaling for scientific research is allowed under the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Critics argue that NEWREP-A is clearly a poor cover to allow Japan to continue commercial whaling. The Executive Director of Greenpeace Japan called Japan’s defiance of the ICJ “unacceptable”, stating the hunt is “not scientific research, it’s straight up commercial whaling.” The Japanese government has openly admitted that the meat harvested by NEWREP-A will be sold for popular consumption, but argues this is in-keeping with the 1946 Convention, as a clause allows scientific whaling essentially allows the government in question to use the whale carcasses as it sees fit.

The antarctic minke whale is not endangered, with a 2012 population estimate (which has been largely acknowledged as a conservative guess) at around around 515,000 wild antarctic minke whales. They are prime targets for hunters due to their abundance, high quality meat and are easier to catch than larger species.

This is not the first time Japan has permitted whaling considered illegal by international bodies. There have been three such programmes carried out in the last ten years, killing up to 14,000 whales. All were condemned as excuses to continue commercial whaling by both the scientific and political world. This reaction is hardly surprising-though such programmes have produced 666 research papers since the first expedition in 1987, only two have ever been peer reviewed.

The scientific community have argued that if NEWREP-A genuinely wish to survey the whales then killing them is not the best method. In June 2015 the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission reported that “the need for lethal sampling has not been demonstrated” by Japan. Rather it is believed by critics such as Japanese scientist Yasuhiro Sanada that scientific whaling is a fabrication: “They don’t have to catch and kill anymore, research can be done by non-lethal methods.”

Perhaps there is some truth to Japan’s claim that the hunt is for scientific research, and the meat is just a pleasant bonus. After all, the whale-meat industry is shrinking in Japan. The price of whale meat almost halved in Japan between 1994 and 2006, falling from $30/kg to $16.40/kg. The last two expeditions made $27.3 million less than expected from the commercial sale of hunted whales (though these numbers are affected somewhat by the trouble these expeditions had in reaching their quotas). Clearly, there is little demand for whale meat in Japan. Why would the Japanese government breach international law for a market that is declining?

Ms Junko Sakuma, an independent Japanese researcher, believes that her government is essentially whaling for the sake of whaling, in order to preserve both a tradition that is dying. “This is about saving face,” Ms. Sakuma told ABC, “and has nothing to do with the Japanese people.” It seems the political act of whaling itself is as important, if not more so, than the whales themselves.

NEWREP-A is not hunting a threatened or endangered species in hunting Atlantic Minke whales, and though the aim of 3396 whales over 12 years will be felt it is not expected to substantially damage the whale population. But the expedition is clearly not being undertaken for any scientific purposes-rather, Japan’s illegal Atlantic whaling programme is clearly being driven by political and economic interests.

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