What would Moby Dick think?

June 24th, 2005

Posted by: admin

An article published yesterday in the BBC News states that “the International Whaling Commission has condemned Japan’s plan to increase the scale of its catches in the name of science”. The debate over what constitutes enough whales for scientific inquiry (look here for info about the IWC scientific permits) is another good example of what happens when science is used as a proxy for what is essentially a political, economic, gastronomic and values debate.

Since the moratorium on commercial whaling was established in 1986, countries have been allowed to “kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research” according to guidelines that are established by each member nation. For example, the current 2004 permit for Japan allows for “220 common minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 100 sei and 10 sperm whales” to be killed in the name of scientific research. This is in addition to another research program in which “it takes 440 minke whales from the southern ocean each year”. Japan is now proposing to introduce a new research plan that would boost the minke harvest up to 935, and fin whales and humpbacks up to 50 in Antarctic waters.

Again, according to the BBC News, 63 scientists working with the IWC condemned Japan’s proposal for two reasons. First, results from the first 18 years of research have not yet been evaluated. Second, with the new proposal, Japan’s catch would approach commercial levels that were in place before the 1986 moratorium was established. Still other critics are calling for non-lethal methods of research.

But this isn’t about scientific research done in the name of resource management.

When was the last time we’ve read about the killing of African Elephants, Bald Eagles, Bluefin Tuna or California Condors in the name of enhancing our scientific knowledge of that species’ management? While having the entire animal available for research could certainly be scientifically useful, it begs the question, what N is the optimal size for conducting valid research?

Let’s face it, Japan’s scientific whaling program is a clever way of utilizing the IWC’s own bureaucratic framework to legitimize the commercial harvest of whales that supports a lucrative whale-meat industry back home (Whale Burgers). Indeed, the BBC reports that Japan has undertaken a promotional program celebrating whale meat.

So let’s take science out of the debate and assume for a moment that substantive whale research can still be undertaken using non-lethal means, and by utilizing the occasional whale carcass that washes ashore. Indeed, a resolution proposed by Australia that asked Japan to switch to non-lethal research passed in the IWC by a slim margin. Instead we should focus on what this debate is really about: politics, economics, gastronomy and values. Keep your eye on this ‘scientific’ debate as Japan recruits more Lesser Developed Countries and small island states to join the IWC, and ostensibly, support increased whale harvests in the name of scientific research.

6 Responses to “What would Moby Dick think?”

  1. Phillip Says:

    I see a simple solution to this.

    If the Japanese Government insist that whales are killed for research purposes only, then they would have no objection to making the sale of whale meat illegal in the country.

    The only true incentive to killing whales then would be research.

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  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Phillip. Your proposal certainly has merit and would force Japan into clarifying the real reasons behind the research. But here’s a catch… the International Whaling Commission currently requires that the entire whale be utilized rather than be wasted after it is killed for research. So the whole system serves to support the commercial industry-in-disguise. Japan has also been pushing to end the commercial moratorium and may actually have enough support from member countries in a few years. Stay tuned :)

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  5. William Says:

    You say… “a lucrative whale-meat industry”. Are you sure about this? Last I heard, whale-hunting was subsidised in Japan and Norway. I think (though I have no figures to hand) that it isn’t profitable. Japan I’m less sure of but Norway subsidises it as a sop to the non-city folk.

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  7. Elizabeth Says:

    Hello William,

    Thanks for the posting and point well taken re what constitutes ‘lucrative’. From what I’ve seen in a variety of accounts, the sale of whale meat in Japan brings in about $40 million/year with the Japanese gov subsidizing about 1/4 of that. As we know from the petroleum industry perspective, for example, subsidization and profitability are not mutually exclusive concepts. From a research perspective, turning any kind of profit is certainly lucrative. What constitutes lucrative could also depend on what whale product is being sold and to whom. Some parts of the whale fetch extremely high prices in the swankier restaurants whilst other parts get canned.

    But even if the ‘research enterprise’ were unsustainable financially, and the whale kills were truly conducted in the name of research, I suspect the whale harvest would decrease in lieu of less lethal, and less expensive, means rather than increase which is what Japan wants to do. Interestingly, Japan is also actively marketing whale meat to the younger generation as an important part of Japan’s cultural heritage. Both points underscore the fact that this issue is less about scientific research than it is about other considerations such as economics (Japanese food self-sufficiency or perhaps an attempt to drive demand), gastronomy, or values (Japanese cultural identity) rather than what constitutes ’sound’ science.

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  9. Thomas Says:

    While Japan has been whaling for a long time, eating whale meat really took off after WW II when other meat was rare, so encouraging people to eat whale meat as part of some cultural heritage is a bit dubious.

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  11. Elizabeth Says:

    Hi Thomas,

    I agree… it seems as if the Japanese government is working hard to construct their whale meat heritage, which again begs the question: what does scientific research have to do with all of this, if anything? :)