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A Fin Whale
A fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Listed by CITES as 'endangered', Japan announced that it will add this species to its 'scientific whaling' program.
Photo - Chris Johnson

June 29, 2005
IWC Meeting 2005 - Ulsan, Korea
  Commercial Whaling in the Name of Science?

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey as we sail towards the Bahamas.

Last week, after sending one of the largest delegations in history to this year's International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Ulsan, South Korea, Japan failed to resume commercial whaling. Even with the addition of several new countries under Japan's 'vote buying' scheme, 29 countries voted against the proposed resumption and only 23 voted in support of Japan.

Although there is reason to celebrate this victory, Japan ensured that her whaling program would continue to grow despite the setback. At the beginning of the meeting the Japanese delegation announced the expansion of its current 'scientific whaling' program.

The IWC was established in 1946 to manage the whaling activities that drove many populations to the verge of extinction. In 1986, a zero quota was set and commercial whaling ceased. Determined to continue whaling, Japan is the only member nation to exploit a loophole in the convention and continues to hunt whales today under the guise of science. Unlike commercial whaling, scientific catches are not regulated under the IWC. Article VIII allows member nations to grant its nationals a permit to take whales for scientific purposes. The member nation also sets the objective of the research and the number of whales to be killed. For all intents and purposes, Japan simply changed the name of its whaling program from commercial, to scientific whaling.

Japan's scientific whaling activities occur in both Antarctic waters (the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary) and the western North Pacific. The original targets were minke whales. However, since 2000, Japan added sperm whales, Bryde's whales and sei whales to the list of target species.

This year in South Korea, Japan announced its intention to more than double its catch of Antarctic minke whales (from 440 to 935), and to expand lethal sampling to include 50 fin whales and 50 humpback whales. All in addition to its North Pacific hunt of minke, Bryde's, sei and sperm whales.

In a paper published this month in the scientific journal Nature, a team of experts posed the question in regards to Japan's scientific whaling program - 'Useful science or unregulated commercial whaling?'

    "Since 1987, Japan has taken approximately 7,900 minke whales, 243 Bryde's whales, 140 sei whales and 38 sperm whales for scientific purposes. By contrast, 840 whales were killed globally by Japan for scientific research between 1954 and the moratorium [1986]. Together, all other nations have killed about 2,100 whales for scientific research since 1952. Japan's expanded program will result in annual catches that are more than half the total cumulative catches for scientific research by all nations in the past half-century. Such takes differ little in scale from commercial whaling, and must be justified by an adequate scientific rationale."
    - Gales, N. et al. Nature (2005).

A 1997 review of Japan's scientific whaling by the Scientific Committee (SC) of the IWC found the research conducted failed to meet its stated objectives and that the data derived were "not required for management". In other words, there is no adequate scientific rationale for this program. In fact, 40 resolutions critical of Japan's scientific whaling have so far been passed by the IWC. Unfortunately, the recommendations of the IWC are not binding and repeated calls for Japan to halt its scientific whaling activities have had no effect. Meanwhile, after 18 years of research, few peer-reviewed papers have come from the Japanese program and none has been published in the IWC's management focused Journal of Cetacean Research and Management.

So how exactly does Japan attempt to justify its scientific whaling program and, in particular, the addition of humpback whales to it list of target species?

A Fin Whale
A humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) breaching. Japan announced its intention to kill humpback whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary next season as part of its 'scientific whaling' program.

Voting statistics from the IWC, South Korea, 2005.

    Countries voting FOR the Japanese proposal to resume commericial whaling -
    Antigua & Barbuda, Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Dominica, Gabon, Grenada, Guinea, Iceland, Japan, Mauritania, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Palau, Russia, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & Grenadines, Senegal, Solomon Islands, Suriname and Tuvalu.

    Countries voting AGAINST the Japanese proposal to resume commericial whaling -
    Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Panama, Portugal, San Marino, Slovak Republic, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States of America.

    Countries that abstained from voting-
    China, Denmark, Kiribati.
Photo courtesy of Cynde Bierman-McGinnis

The strongest argument posed by Japan in favor of lethal sampling is the collection of genetic samples for assessing population structure. However, this data can be collected more efficiently utilizing non-lethal biopsy techniques, such as those employed by Ocean Alliance and several other research organizations. Japan also claims the selective culling of some species, namely minke whales, humpback whales and fin whales, will reduce competition for krill and promote the return of the most economically valuable species, the blue whale. Scientists argue this is based on unreviewed and unpublished data, and inadequate, simplistic ecosystem models. Nor does it take into account that many populations were reduced to less than 10% of their original size, therefore posing little threat of competition.

From a conservation perspective, Japan's planned catches of humpback and fin whales in the Southern Ocean are particularly worrying, not to mention the fact that the hunt is to occur in a globally declared whale sanctuary. Humpback whales are listed internationally as vulnerable while fin whales are endangered under the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). During commercial whaling of the 20th century, the total Southern Hemisphere catches included 723,000 fin whales and 197,000 humpbacks. Both species have been protected from any form of legal whaling in this hemisphere since 1966 (humpbacks) and 1985 (fin whales).

    "Very little is known about the status of fin whales in the Southern Ocean. But some of the humpback whales feeding where Japan intends to conduct whaling come from small, highly depleted populations that breed in the tropical South Pacific. Because gunners on catcher boats cannot know the population from which a particular whale is taken, catches in these regions could have disastrous effects in terms of stock recovery for these populations."
    - Gales, N. et al. Nature (2005).

Jennifer Lonsdale, Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) attended this year's meeting in South Korea. I asked Jennifer how the Japanese attempted to justify the need to conduct lethal research on humpback whales to fellow delegates and scientists?

    "The Japanese are unable to justify the need to kill humpbacks. It is politically motivated and will make no contribution to science. Further more there is no guarantee that they will not take humpbacks from extremely reduced populations in areas such as Fiji and Samoa simply because there is little known about the extent of the mixing of different populations on the feeding grounds. The Japanese were questioned on this issue numerous times during the meeting but were unable to provide an answer. Instead they skirted round the questions.

The hunting of humpback whales and other species defies international agreements and violates protected sanctuaries and species. With increased quotas and the addition of humpback whales, the stakes are raised. It is time for politics to take a back seat and for real science to take the lead. This proposal implies a new crisis for whales according to Gales et al. (Nature 2005) -
"with Japan's proposed escalation in the number of species and individual whales to be sampled, and without any regulatory process to manage these catches, the consequences for whale populations may well be more serious... It is time for the IWC to review the provision of the international convention under which scientific whaling permits are issued"

Although the objective is supposedly a scientific one, Japan's scientific whaling program yields considerable profit from the commercial sale of whale meat. Estimated at US$50 million earlier this decade, the profit will rise considerably in line with an increased catch. The Japanese government provides annual subsidies of some further US$10 million for cetacean research. These revenues are invested in the maintenance and operation of the catcher/processor vessels in addition to the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research that conducts the science associated with scientific whaling.

The danger lies in the dependence upon these revenues that in turn may drive increased quotas for scientific whaling - therefore creating a need to meet commercial consumer demand in Japan.

Meanwhile, whale watching is booming in Japan as more young people flock to see the animals in their ocean environment. The latest research conducted by Eric Hoyt, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) Senior Research Fellow, shows whale watching in Japan focuses on some 20 species and has grown significantly since its inception in 1988. The most recent estimates reveal that Japan hosts more than 100,000 whale watchers in at least 20 communities.

According to International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) President, Fred O'Reagan, "Scientific whaling is more about whaling than science. The best science in the world today is done by studying, photographing and listening to live whales in the ocean." He goes on to add that if we break the argument down to an economic one, whales are more valuable alive than dead. "Global assessments demonstrate that whale watching is now pursued in 90 countries and territories, and contributes more than 1 billion dollars each year in tourism revenues."

However, the Japanese Government is determined to encourage a new generation of whale eaters. Current restrictions on the size of the catch means meat from Japan's research whaling only goes to the tables of Japan's pricier gourmet restaurants, the young are missing out. In a desperate effort to win over the hearts and minds of the young who are showing a collective move away from the practice of eating whales, meat left over from last seasons hunt is being given away free in school lunches across the country. In addition, a fast food hamburger chain, 'Lucky Pierrot', is now offering whale burgers in 10 of its stores.

Jennifer Lonsdale of EIA provides some advice to those who want to know what they can do to help -

    "If you are concerned about Japan killing humpback whales for 'science', a good place to start is to write to your local Japanese Embassy and politely but firmly protest the taking of humpback whales, as well as Japan's entire Scientific Permit whaling which is an outrage and totally irrelevant to the kind of science we need for the conservation and management of cetaceans. You can also write to your own government and call on them to put as much pressure on the Japanese Government as possible, especially at the top ministerial level."

Last week, Ocean Alliance Founder and President Dr. Roger Payne, went one step further. He wrote an open letter to the youth of Japan appealing to them to save whale populations around the globe - especially the humpbacks - the singer/composer/poets of the oceans. Dr. Payne strongly feels that Japan's next generation is our greatest hope for change.


  • Gales, N. Kasuya, T. Clapham, P. Brownell, R. - "Useful Science or unregulated commercial whaling?"
    Nature. 435, 883 - 884. 16 June, 2005.
  • Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) -
  • International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) -
  • Hoyt, E. - "Whale Watching 2001 - Worldwide Tourism Numbers, Expenditures, and Expanding Socioeconomic Benefits".
    A special report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (2001).
  • "Whale burger on menu at Japanese fast food chain"
    Reuters UK - Thursday, June 23, 2005. -
  • Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) -


Odyssey log written by Genevieve Johnson.
The Odyssey crew would like to thank Jennifer Lonsdale and EIA for their assistance in this report.

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