Last week we covered the paper released by the Japanese Whale Research Program (JARPA) showing that minke whales in the Antarctic were getting thinner, and we also covered their research methods—taking measurements from more than 4,500 slaughtered whales. This week National Geographic has an update, interviewing two American researchers who say that killing the whales wasn’t necessary for the research.
Scott Baker, from Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, said researchers could have made the same finding by genetic testing, biopsy—removing a small piece of tissue for sampling—or simply through photographic evidence. And Stanford University’s Stephen Palumbi disagreed with the Japanese scientists over the importance of the finding, saying that whales getting a little skinnier might not matter that much, and the study’s findings weren’t statistically significant enough to be useful.
Since the 1986 moratorium on commercial whale hunting by the International Whaling Commission, Japan has continued to hunt some whales in the name of scientific research, so its scientists are under international pressure to show that the hunting has really produced important scientific research. But Baker called the killings not only unnecessary but also “crude,” especially because hunters used harpoons and rifles that often didn’t kill the whales instantly.
In 2005-06, Japan rolled out its new Antarctic research plan, JARPA II, which will run for six years. And while the Japanese researchers say they will use non-lethal methods whenever possible, the plan (pdf) calls for killing about 850 more minke whales in order to study fat levels, or when whales reach sexual maturity—both of which the researchers say they can’t measure in a non-lethal way.
The International Whaling Commission passed two different resolutions asking Japan not to go through with this, one in 2005 and another last year. Australia deployed its navy and air force to monitor whaling vessels, trying to keep them out of Australian waters. But under the current rules, it seems like nobody can stop Japan from whaling in the name of science if the country wants to keep doing it.