Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Killing whales for science

Australia has taken Japan to the International Court of Justice over Japan's whaling in the Southern Ocean. There is an interesting series of articles on the Conversation that summarise the court case (in chronological order they are here, here, here, here and here). Australia has argued that Japan is in violation of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and also that Japan's whaling is in contrary to their obligations under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Japan insists that its whaling activities are for scientific research, which is allowed under the rules set out in the Whaling Convention. Australia case will primarily try to establish that the activities are really a commercial harvest in breach of the International Whaling Commission's moratorium. New Zealand, while not bringing a case against Japan, is set to provide evidence in support of Australia's case. 

It's the worst kept secret in the Universe that Japan is actually engaging in commercial whaling, but establishing it legally seems a bit more tricky. The scientific basis for the hunt has repeatedly been criticised for failing to meet the minimum standards required for science. The major concerns are that very little of the data is published in the scientific literature and most of the hypotheses they claim to be testing are already well established or can be tested without killing whales.

The Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) is the organisation the undertakes the supposed scientific research involving the lethal sampling of whales. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has recently estimated that the Japanese Government has provided 387 million dollars to the ICR since scientific whaling began in 1988. Since then the ICR has published 150 papers in the literature (according to Web of Science), which is extremely poor output for the amount of money put in (2.58 million per paper!). It is, in fact, poor output had they only received 1% of the IFAW figure.

Another thing to consider is that the 150 published papers are not all on whales and those that are often do not require that the whales be killed to collect the data. Only a tiny minority of the ICR papers present data the require the death of whales and the 387 million dollars has been provided specifically to support the killing of whales. No funding agency would normally continue to provide funding for a research program that has so utterly failed to produce valuable science.

The ICR has stated on several occasions that the output would be better if they didn't have to contend with the Sea Shepherd activists because they prevent adequate sample sizes being taken. Despite these claims the sample size is clearly more than high enough to do some interesting science. In a brief literature search*, I found four papers published since January 2012 that required a total of 37 dead whales. In the same period, the ICR has killed 170 whales in the Southern Ocean alone (notably the lowest two catches since its whaling began) and published just one study in a low quality journal.

It is a hard problem to define exactly what constitutes science. Japan has argued that the International Court for Justice "is a court of law, not of scientific truth", claiming that the Court doesn't have the jurisdiction to determine what constitutes science. But, I think this misses the point. The Court is not being asked to define what constitutes science, but whether the research program is legitimate under the Whaling Convention or veiled commercial whaling. That veil is pretty thin in my opinion and I hope the Court sees it that way too.

*The papers I looked at in the literature search were:
1) Ford T. J., Werth A. J. & George J. C. (2013)
An Intraoral Thermoregulatory Organ in the Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus), the Corpus Cavernosum Maxillaris.
The Anatomical Record 296, 701–708 doi:10.1002/ar.22681

2) Werth A. J. (2013)
Flow-dependent porosity and other biomechanical properties of mysticete baleen.
The Journal of Experimental Biology 216, 1152-1159 doi:10.1242/jeb.078931

3) Pyenson N. D., Goldbogen J. A., Vogl A. W., Szathmary G., Drake R. L. & Shadwick R. E. (2012)
Discovery of a sensory organ that coordinates lunge feeding in rorqual whales.
Nature 485, 498–501 doi:10.1038/nature11135

4) Yamato M., Ketten D. R., Arruda J., Cramer S. & Moore K. (2012)
The Auditory Anatomy of the Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata): A Potential Fatty Sound Reception Pathway in a Baleen Whale.
The Anatomical Record 295, 991–998 doi:10.1002/ar.22459

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