Killing any animal in the name of science is an emotive issue. It can illicit severe reactions from the general public and always entices the view of the media that produce provocative images. Whilst these can be useful to get a conservation message out to the general public such as used by the WWF or Flora and Fauna International, it can also be used to politicise issues such as those surrounding the killing of zoo animals when they are not needed for the gene pool. It can also become desensitising, as we become more and more bombarded by such images. As the whaling season ends at the end of this month, one will have seen lots of images of the whaling by the Japanese on the television, in the newspapers and in social media, and thus has to question some of the issues of whaling and how it is viewed by us the public, and controlled if at all by those within the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Japan has continued it’s normal schedule of scientific whaling, whilst Iceland has announced it will increase it’s whale catch in 2014, with minke whales being hunted increasing by 6%. They will be selling the meat to Japanese commercial markets, however whilst both Icelandic and Japanese residents will consume the meat there is a growing number against it, and the numbers of those consuming the meat are dwindling.
All marine mammals including whales are protected by CITES (Convention on International Trading in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and the IWC. However under loopholes and allowances for such things as aboriginal hunting within the regulations imposed by the IWC countries such as Japan and Iceland have interpreted these regulations and used them under the auspices of ‘scientific whaling‘. Under these allowances hunting may be carried out for the study of whales and the effect of the marine environment on them; Japan has published quite a lot of scientific papers on the study of whales, particularly those of the Mysticetes and in particular the family Balaenopterdae within their JAPRA/JAPRA II program. However when looking at these papers many of them are the study of the migratory patterns, fertility, abundance and feeding behavious; some are concerned with genetics and other aspects but the majority of the tests carried out were via lethal methods rather than taking samples of live whales. Also the majority was carried out by Japanese scientists rather than foreign. What is interesting when looking at the journals is the number of L-J journals, which denotes the whales were killed by Japanese scientists, that could have been done possibly without the need of lethal means such as population monitoring and segregation; with these one has to question whether simple counts would suffice. The Japanese can also explain why they are able to sell the whale meat as under scientific whaling it is expected that whales ‘shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government’. This causes many people confusion until you actually read the guidance on the IWC pages, and this is seldom mentioned in media outlet. Infact I would expect most scientists would actually argue that if you are going to kill an animal it is probably the best outcome for the meat to be used and not wasted, however there is media speculation that there is a lot of offal and discard of whale meat going back into the ocean. This is also not taking into consideration the possible toxic overload of whale meat of things such as mercury and organochlorines, particularly in the case of odontocetes such as dolphins and other toothed whales but also to a lesser extent in the mysticetes such as minke whales. Distinctions also need to be made for public accessibility on what aboriginal hunting means such as is done in the Faroe Islands, it’s certainly not pretty and maybe could be done better but it isn’t commercial hunting nor is is it scientific in any way shape or form and as such the media should display these facts without misrepresentation that draws parallels with the dolphin drives in Japan.
More recently in 2006 Iceland declared that they were commercially hunting whales because they had reservations about the ban that was imposed on hunting whales. Whales that are taken can involve endangered species such as fin whales Baleanoptera physalus as well as those of least concern on the IUCN Red List such as minke whales Balaenoptera acutorostrata. Norway and Iceland are the only two members of the IWC that commercially hunt whales, whilst Russia is the third country to launch and objection to the moratorium on whaling, although they do not act on it. All other members of the IWC are bound to the moratorium, but it seems that any one in that group can launch an objection and not be bound. This is where as someone interested in conservation I cannot understand how this can even be allowed, and where any thing can actually be done to stop harvesting of endangered animals. I can as a scientist justify taking a small portion of mammals for testing of mercury levels, but many of these do not necessarily need to be slaughtered for those reasons. I can reason with the justification of aboriginal hunting, however commercial hunting seems crude at best when the majority of those people from Japan and Iceland do not eat this meat.
However, it is important that to be taken seriously on this issue we use facts and figures of what is happening with the whales, why we need to capture some and test and even more so if they are to be killed, and to only use the provocative, emotive stances when we are absolutely sure that the reasons for the whaling are not justified and not for things such as the Faroe Island hunts; as this is not helpful to the cause of conservation in the long run.