Japan’s whaling science under the microscope

Japan’s whaling science under the microscope
Updated 21 May 2015

Japan’s whaling science under the microscope

Japan’s whaling science under the microscope

TOKYO: When Japanese researchers said earlier this year that eating whale meat could help prevent dementia and memory loss, the news provoked snorts of derision — it couldn’t be real science, went the retort.
Despite protestations of academic rigour from the men and women who do the work, anything involving the words “Japan,” “whaling” and “research” suffers from a credibility gap in the court of global public opinion.
Tokyo was told last year by the United Nations’ top legal body that the program of “lethal research whaling” it has carried out in the Southern Ocean for nearly two decades was a fig leaf for a commercial hunt.
Now Japan is going back to the scientific panel of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) at a meeting in San Diego that began Tuesday, to try to convince them there is a genuine need for the research that they say is being carried out when they slaughter marine mammals whose meat ends up on the dinner table.
Japan’s research whaling program “doesn’t appear to fulfil basic criteria that all scientists naturally strive toward,” said Atsushi Ishii, associate professor of environmental politics at Tohoku University in northeastern Japan.
“For example, there was no reasonable explanation as to how catch ceilings were worked out and... there have been few peer-reviewed articles.
“Scientific research on this scale usually involves cooperation with other projects” for efficiency and to avoid duplication, but Japan has steadfastly gone it alone, he added.
Japan has hunted whales for a few hundred years, but the industry really took off after World War II to help feed a hungry country.
While other leading industrial nations — including the United States and Britain — once hunted whales, the practice fell out of favor, and by the 1980s, commercial whaling was banned.
Norway and Iceland ignore the ban, but Japan uses a loophole that allows for so-called “lethal research.” “The purpose of Japan’s research is science — science that will ensure that when commercial whaling is resumed, it will be sustainable,” the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), the body charged with overseeing the whaling program, insists on its website.
The ICR says this means it needs to keep careful tabs on the whale population, by determining, amongst other things, the average life expectancy of the creatures, their exposure to pollutants and their diet.
The only accurate way to measure these criteria, they say, is to kill the animals to examine their stomach contents, the condition of their organs and the thickness of their blubber.
Responding to the UN court decision, Japan has now submitted a new research proposal to the IWC, setting a Southern Ocean catch target of 333 minke whales — a two-thirds cut of the previous target — and limiting the program to 12 years, instead of being open-ended.