Save the whales, me hearties

Arr, these Sea Shepherd guys make Greenpeace look soft. If you want to stop Japanese boats from going whaling, don’t go after them in just a flimsy rubber dinghy. Do what pirates would do – go out there and ram them. Okay, so there’s a bit of a dispute over who rammed who, who threw what, who issued a distress call, and whether anyone’s going to be made to walk the plank. But you have to admire the conservationists’ pluck. In particular, we need to recognise that this is a case where direct action seems reasonable, because despite the endless political machinations of Australia and others, nothing else seems to work.

I am a big Japanophile, and love the many non-whale aspects of Japanese food. But no-one gets carte blanche to pursue their cultural heritage regardless of environmental concerns. Japan has made representations to the IWC that a commercial minke hunt ought to be allowed. Perhaps it should, I’m not an expert. However, the IWC says it shouldn’t. And if the expert global body imposes a ban, then it shouldn’t be flouted with dodgy scientific institutes.

What possible justification can the Tokyo Institute for Cetacean Research have for killing 850 whales this year? What could the research possibly be into, other than how whale meat tastes when lightly grilled and dipped into soy sauce? Well, their homepage says that the research is in the following areas:

1. Estimation of biological parameters to improve the stock management of the Southern Hemisphere minke whale,

2. Examination of the role of whales in the Antarctic marine ecosystem,

3. Examination of the effect of environmental changes on cetaceans and,

4. Examination of the stock structure of the Southern Hemisphere minke whales to improve stock management.

None of which would seem to necessitate killing 850 whales. As opposed to, say, the lucrative business in packaging and selling the “offcuts” of this research, which earns a company called Kyodo Senpaku $60 million a year.

Why do they say they kill whales?

Japan’s research programs involve both lethal and non-lethal research techniques such as sighting surveys and biopsy sampling. While certain information can be obtained through non-lethal means, other information requires sampling of internal organs such as ovaries, ear plugs and stomachs. For example, while the population age structure and reproductive rates of land mammals can be determined by observation over a long period of time, such is not the case for whales since they spend most of their time underwater. In this case we need ear plugs for age determination and ovaries to establish reproductive rates. Similarly, to study the interactions of whales and other parts of the marine ecosystem we need to know what they are eating. This is done by examining stomach contents.

Another example is that for pollution studies, tissue samples from various internal organs are required.

Right, so unless you examine the entrails and ovaries of hundreds of whales each years, they may die out. It’s a bit like destroying a village in order to save it.

To be fair to Japan, they have got a genuine research interest in whales. If they are no longer an endangered species, then the world will probably drop its ban on whaling, allowing the Japanese and Norwegians to once more fire their harpoons into their favourite snack. So you can understand why Japan would want to source accurate data on whale populations. But if your interest is in repopulating them, again, why kill 850 of them?

Despite the claims that they are “pirates” and “terrorists”, I think the Sea Shepherd folk are doing a great job. Even if they can’t actually save the whales, they’re seriously annoying the Japanese “research institute”. I can think of no sham scientific organisation – even the Ponds institute – that I’d rather see inconvenienced.

Dominic Knight

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