Of ‘science’ and fetal whaling

More than one-quarter of the 679 whales taken from Antarctic waters by Japanese research crews, during the past seven months, were pregnant, according to a report released Monday at the International Whaling Commission meeting, in Madeira, Portugal. Another four of the females killed as part of this whale “sampling” program were lactating; so there’s concern that their calves were additional casualties of Japan’s Austral summer “research program.”

Although commercial whaling is all but banned, Japan has maintained an active “scientific” whaling program for years. On March 22, it completed the second year of what it terms a six-year research program. Its aim: to gauge population sizes of various species of whales in southern waters, identify their age at maturity, assess their diet, measure tissue-contaminant levels and study various internal organs, such as ovaries and “earplugs,” according to Shigetoshi Nishiwaki of the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo and his colleagues this week.
“Governments of [organizations] engaged in whale fishing claim that they are not engaging in ‘commercial fishing’ but ‘scientific fishing,’” notes the International Union for Conservation of Nature, based in Gland, Switzerland. In fact, most cetacean biologists argue, whale populations exist at only a fraction of their former abundance and are far from large enough to sustain commercial harvesting for meat or oil — or even the culling of some 1,000 whales a year for science. Australia, a party to the IWC, campaigned this year to end any “scientific whaling” that involves the deliberate killing of whales.

On its website, the Japan Whaling Association counters that “No whales have ever been hunted to extinction, nor are they likely to be. . . . [And] there are species which are abundant enough that marine management is needed,” such as for the Antarctic and northwestern Pacific minke whales and northwestern Pacific Bryde’s whales. Marine management, presumably, is whaling lingo for harvesting.

Japan has a long whaling tradition. The Japan Whaling Association likens asking the Japanese to forego whale meat to “Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers.” It argues that “Attitudes toward animals are a part of national cultures. No nations should try to impose their attitudes on others.”

Where I’m sympathetic to cultural claims is with subsistence hunters, like the Inupiat living on Alaska’s North Slope. They have hunted bowhead whales for millennia, and eat the entire animal. It’s not a luxury. It’s how their communities have survived harsh winters where fish were hard to reach and any crop-growing season lasts a few short months. Moreover, Alaska’s subsistence hunters don’t take more than they can eat.

Currently, the National Marine Fisheries Service allows subsistence hunts by Alaskan native peoples of up to 67 bowheads a year, of which a few takes are allocated to Russian subsistence hunters.

As for whales in Japan being comparable to burgers in the U.S. — the two are hardly parallel. Cows are not wild game but livestock bred expressly as food and in herd sizes meant to meet market demands. Moreover, there’s no question of cows going extinct.

But what I find particularly disturbing about this week’s report on Japan’s whale “science” is the huge number of fetal losses. If 63 percent of the females were pregnant at the time they were sacrificed — we’re talking about 192 moms-to-be — then maybe this isn’t the season to “sample” southern cetaceans.

Whales are long lived animals. I’ve written about bowheads that appear to have lifespans in the 200-year range. Whales take a very long time to mature. And once they do, they seldom give birth to more than a calf or two every few years. So losing moms — while carrying the next generation — is not good for the species. In fact, I shudder at how the Japanese justify this as good science.

If they need to know pollutant levels, do harpoon biopsies that steal a bit of tissue and leave the animal reproductively sound. Need to know age structures? Take a lesson from orca researchers in Alaskan waters who spend season after season charting populations, their calving success and longevity. But let the babies live. Let lactating moms continue to nurse the next generation until those young’ens can survive on their own.

In a report that Nishiwaki and his colleagues prepared for the IWC meeting, they maintain that certain cetacean data require sacrificing some animals. Towards this end, Japan has obtained permits to annually collect up to 935 Antarctic minkes (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) out of resident populations that the Japan Whaling Association estimates to contain 761,000 animals, 50 humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) and 50 fin whales (B. physalus). But doesn’t 1,000 of these huge specimens seem excessive?

Despite having approval to sacrifice so many whales, Nishiwaki’s group reported Monday that during this year’s 103 day hunting season, as also occurred last year, Japanese researchers were thwarted from acquiring their full legal complement of carcasses. The reason: “the violent actions of an anti-whaling group over 16 days.” 

Indeed, the scientists named their nemesis: the Sea Shepherd, the principal vessel of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. (This activist group’s activities are chronicled in weekly installments of “Whale Wars,” a television series broadcast on the Animal Planet network.) But Sea Shepherd was hardly the only fly in the researchers’ ointment. Nishiwaki’s institute hosts videos of other groups that also engaged in “illegal harassment and terrorism” against its research.

See also: Cousteau finds “hypocrisy” in scientific whaling

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine