Last night I caught a new show that I’ve been waiting to see since I first saw a commercial for it. Whale Wars follows a group called Sea Shepherd to Antarctica on a mission to stop the killing of minke, humpback and fin whales by Japanese whaling vessels. Paul Watson, the captain, was a co-founder of Greenpeace. However, he left and began Sea Shepherd because he wanted to do more to stop whaling than bear witness to it. In last night’s episode, it was explained that it is illegal to hunt endangered species, including whales, as dictated by the United Nations World Charter on Nature. However, it seems that nobody enforces that, and that the Japanese have found a loop hole. A limited number of whales are allowed to be taken for scientific study, and the resulting meat is sold. So the Japanese claim to be doing scientific research on these whales. The first episode was about the search to find whaling ships and getting prepared. Highlights were a disastrous launch of a smaller boat which resulted in a capsize and damage to their helicopter by a crew member.
I have to say that I’m torn about how to feel about Japanese whaling. Animal research is something that I have taken an interest in throughout my education and career. While I believe that dissection is a valuable learning tool, I do think that it is important to remember that these animals died so we could learn and that we must out of respect for that learn everything we possibly can and treat these animals with respect. I have dissected many different vertebrates, from the token frog, fetal pig, and cat of high school classrooms, to turtles, rats, pigeons, dogfish sharks, and I’ve also made use of and learned from animals hunted by my husband. As someone who focused on vertebrate anatomy and physiology in my undergraduate work, I needed to dissect and study their anatomy in depth. That said, I see an incredible difference between dissection of dead animals and research on living animals. Animal research in which chemicals are tested and animals suffer is something that I think is wrong. In this day and age, it seems that we must be able to conduct testing in a manner that does not force suffering on living things. Many people hide behind science as an excuse to do things behind closed doors that the majority of us would see a cruel and unnecessary. But I digress…
If the Japanese are in fact learning from killing whales, I’d like to know what it is. I saw footage of the Japanese whaling vessel attempts to prove they were doing research. Such attempts included having the word “Research” on the boat and holding up signs that said “Measuring stomach contents” as the recently slaughtered whales were processed on the decks of the boats. Um, excuse me? Measuring stomach contents is so lame that I wouldn’t ever allow any of my high school students to even dream of giving me such a poor excuse of scientific research. Not to say we can’t learn a lot about stomach contents, because of course we can. However, should we kill endangered species upon endangered species just to see what’s in their stomachs?
Is this so-called research just a ploy to get some profitable whale meat, or are the Japanese scientists actually learning something? I set out to see what I could find about this research. If there’s true research going on, there should be published scientific papers in peer reviewed journals.
The Institute of Cetacean Research’s website clearly lists its disagreement with the Whale Wars program on its front page, and lists articles about it, calling it “Illegal Harassment and Terrorism against ICR.” Upon further research, I found a listing of published papers coming out of Japan’s research in the Antarctic (JARPA). While I’m not going to read all of the articles, I can say that I was pleased to see the list. Many of them had to do with population structure, and others had to do with biological accumulation in whale tissues. I’m not so sure that the whales need to be killed to learn this. In a summary of the JARPA results, the following was stated by the IWC Scientific Committee in 2006:
“the dataset provides a valuable resource to allow investigation of some aspects of the role of whales within the marine ecosystem and that this has the potential to make an important contribution to the Scientific Committee’s work in this regard as well as the work of other relevant bodies such as the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources” and,
“the results from the research program “have the potential to improve management of minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere”.
This seems like a pretty vague conclusion. It’s like when a student writes in a lab report “I really learned a lot.” But it’s interesting that they say these results will possibly improve management of minke whales… Really? Because we learned so much that now there’s JARPA II, heading off to kill more whales.
The purpose of JARPA II is: to learn about how to manage the stock of minke whales, learn about the role of whales in the Antarctic ecosystem, learn about how environmental change affects whale populations, and learn about the stock structure of minke whales. Now, I do not profess to be an expert on whale research. However, I see no reason why any of these cannot be done with tagging, tissue samples, and tracking programs. Why do they have to kill the whales to learn this information?
The whaling industry in Japan is worth about $6 million dollars. However, the whale-watching industry is worth about $1billion dollars worldwide each year. So perhaps there is hope, from an economic standpoint. Perhaps Japan and other whaling countries, like Iceland and Norway, will realize that there’s more money in eco-tourism than in hunting whales. (As a side note, I wonder why Sea Shepherd focuses so much on the Japanese whaling ships and not on Iceland’s and Norway’s, but maybe that’s just not included in the show.)
There certainly is more to learn on all sides of this issue. I think that it’s important to protect endangered species, and it seems that the UN needs to look into the research being conducted by the Japanese in the Antarctic. If it is found that they could do the same research without killing whales, then the UN needs to enforce the ban on commercial whaling. It’s interesting that “Whale Wars” has brought so much attention to the issue. While I do not necessarily agree with their tactics, I see that Sea Shepherd has a noble cause: to protect endangered species. It is my hope that “Whale Wars” will bring attention to the issue and cause research and action on the part of everyday citizens of the Earth and groups like the UN that have the power to do something about it.
For more information:
OceanNEnvironment’s summary, history and plan to boycott Japanese goods
Environmental News Service “Australian Court Orders Illegal Japanese Whale Hunt Stopped”
World Wildlife Fund “Japanese Whaling”
Greenpeace “Japanese whale fleet ready”
An educational unit for children: Voyage of the Mimi (I LOVED this when my class studied it in elementary school!!!)
What do you think?