By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 21/01/2016

With Japanese whalers back in the Southern Ocean and minke whales in their sights, scientists are calling for tighter reviews on the supposed scientific basis for the hunts.

In a correspondence piece written to Nature, a group of representatives from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) called the science behind Japan’s hunts into question.

Japanese whalers have a target of 333 minke whales this season, which would bring the total minke whale kill to 10,712 since 1987 – the first year after the moratorium on commercial whaling.

Andrew Brierley and Phillip Clapham, backed by 30 colleagues, note in their Nature correspondence that Japan ignored an expert review of the science justifying its latest whaling programme. The previous programme was shut down by the International Court of Justice in 2014.

Brierley and Clapham argue that part of the IWC’s reviewing procedure is flawed because it grants equal weight to the opinions of the proposers and the referees, and independent reviews are non-binding.

New Zealand academics concur

New Zealand marine mammal experts agreed that the scientific justification offered by Japan was suspect.

University of Otago zoologist Professor Liz Slooten said when she joined the Scientific Committee of the IWC in 1992, she was “surprised to discover that Japan is under no obligation to respond to criticism on the scientific whaling proposals it submits to the IWC”.

“Japan decides whether to go whaling and how many whales they will kill. The IWC can neither reject a scientific whaling proposal, nor set a quota for the number of whales that can be taken.”

“Scientific whaling is a loophole in the international whaling regulations, allowing whaling to continue despite the current moratorium on commercial whaling (which began in 1986),” Slooten said. “It has been controversial from the time Japan first started calling its whaling ‘scientific’, soon after the commercial whaling moratorium started.”

The University of Auckland’s Dr Rochelle Constantine said the Nature correspondence was an indication of how frustrated many IWC committee members had become with Japan ignoring advice from robust reviews of their work. “It is now considered a waste of time.”

Constantine, the director of the Joint Graduate School in Coastal and Marine Science, said the Japanese Government had “consistently dismissed any comments that are contrary to their objectives in their lethal scientific whaling programmes, including the recent International Court of Justice ruling”.

“The Scientific Committee at the IWC has for many years discussed  Japan’s requests and has had very solid scientific reasons for rejecting their programmes as useful science.”

Constantine is leading a project using satellite tags on humpback whales that migrated past the Kermadec Islands – the animals are now feeding in Antarctica and twelve tags are still transmitting data over three months after they were deployed.

She said there had been dedicated effort by many scientists to develop non-lethal research techniques, including tissue biopsies and satellite tags, which provided information on age, abundance, habitat use and migration paths.

“None of these require us to kill whales yet can answer important questions about these animals.”

Victoria University law lecturer Joanna Mossop said while she understood the scientists’ frustrations, an enhanced scientific committee process “would not change the fact that the decision to proceed with the whaling programme is primarily a political decision”.

Problems with the ‘science’

Slooten said there was a “long list of problems” with the scientific justification of the whaling programme, including poorly defined research questions, poor sample design, lack of testable hypotheses and inappropriate use of analysis methods.

Scientific whaling also had a poor record of publishing its results, when a key marker of the success of a research project was the number of peer-reviewed publications that came out of it.

“A lack of performance criteria makes it virtually impossible to determine whether the research has succeeded or failed,” Slooten said.


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Featured image: An adult and sub-adult Minke whale are dragged aboard the Nisshin Maru, a Japanese whaling vessel that is the world’s only factory whaling ship. Wikipedia CC, Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia.