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Japan's science: a whale of a tale
Gland, Switzerland – A new WWF report dispels the myth that it is necessary to kill whales in order to study them.
Since the moratorium on whaling took effect in 1986, more than 7,000 whales – minke, sperm and Bryde's whales – have been killed in the name of the science, mainly by the Japanese whaling fleet.
But, the global conservation organization says that scientific whaling is nothing more than an instrument of profit and politics to circumvent the moratorium, as modern, non-lethal techniques are more reliable in providing data on whale biology.
"It is extraordinary that Japan, one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, continues to kill an estimated 650 whales a year using 1940s science in the 21st century," said Dr Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF's Global Species Programme. "We believe that current research programmes must be designed with existing and sound new techniques."
According to the report – Science, profit and politics: Scientific Whaling in the 21st Century – existing non-lethal techniques provide greater sample sizes and more reliable data, and can be repeated over many years – something which is not possible when a whale is killed.
For example, genetic analysis of small skin samples – collected with a non-harmful special biopsy dart – is now widely used to understand the population structure of many mammals, including whales. This technique helps determine the status of whale populations in different geographic areas, which is crucial for setting quotas.
Japan also claims it must kill whales to determine what they eat by studying stomach contents. However, WWF points out this provides only a snapshot view of the most recently consumed prey, and may not be indicative of the real diet. In contrast, analysis from skin samples provides solid information on the whale's diet over a longer time period.
Similarly, Japanese whalers allege lethal research is needed to determine the sex and reproductive condition of whales. But WWF experts reply that sex is easily determined with a biopsy sample. A recently developed technique also enables scientists to determine pregnancy from biopsy samples.
According to the report, the biggest myth supported by the Japanese is that whales are responsible for the collapse of fish stocks. However, not one of their studies on this has been accepted for publication in any international scientific journal.
The science is so poor, the WWF report points out, that it would not pass peer review by scientists associated with any reputable journal.
The Japanese killed 840 whales worldwide for scientific research between 1954 and 1986, and eight times more since that time.
This so-called research is heavily subsidized by the government and the whale meat is sold on the Japanese market.
"Our new report shows that Japan's whaling programme is about business and politics, but not sound science," said Dr Lieberman. "We call on Japan to live up to its reputation as a technologically and scientifically advanced nation, and put an end to 'scientific' whaling."
Iceland is the only other country to still carry out scientific whaling. The Icelandic whaling fleet killed 38 minkes in 2003, 25 in 2004.
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