In the Animal Planet series "Whale Wars," the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sails into the Antarctic in search of a Japanese whaling fleet. The environmental group is out to stop the five-vessel fleet from killing whales, claiming that it's illegal poaching. However, the Japanese ships don't look like those belonging to a renegade band of whale pirates. Instead, they're emblazoned with the word "research" across their sides. The Japanese government even supports the venture through its Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
The whaling fleet is operated, in fact, through the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) in Tokyo. Formed in 1987, a year after the moratorium on commercial whaling went into effect, the ICR kills a set quota of whales each year to study them. Anti-whaling governments, such as Australia, and environmental groups have been vehemently opposed to the ICR since its formation; they claim that the ICR is a cover for Japan slaughtering whales for commercial profit.
Japanese fishermen have killed whales for centuries, both for their oil and meat. Following Word War II, Japan's whaling industry grew exponentially, as the mammals provided a cheaper source of protein amid wartime scarcity. Commercial whaling left various species, including the humpback, teetering on the brink of extinction. Consequently, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created in 1946, and an official ban on commercial whaling was enacted in 1986.
The ICR exists due to its provisions included in the commercial ban. Specifically, the IWC allows whaling when conducted for scientific research. Whale meat ends up on the Japanese market because by law, no whale research byproducts can be thrown away. Profits from the meat further fund the ICR.
Sound fishy? As always, there are two sides to every story; therefore, a deeper dive into the ICR research agenda should shed some light on Japan's motives.
NEXT: ICR Agenda
HOW THE ICR WORKS: ICR Agenda
The Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR) is a nonprofit organization that maintains a close relationship with the International Whaling Commission (IWC). According to the articles of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that established restrictions on commercial whaling, countries may conduct whaling in the name of science. From there, it's up to national governments to set whaling quotas and enforce related guidelines. Each year, the ICR submits its research quota and proposal to the Scientific Committee of the IWC for review.
As part of its national whaling guidelines, the Japanese government prohibits excess ICR whale meat from being thrown away. Instead, the meat is sold for profit that helps fund ICR projects. Amid heated opposition to whaling, the three major seafood companies that used to distribute the ICR's whale meat quit doing so in 2007. Their contracts shifted to public-interest companies and the Japanese government.
Japan isn't the only country that's been granted scientific permits through the IWC. Iceland also has established a similar whaling research program. However, Japan's quotas far exceed Iceland's. For example, Iceland caught 200 minke whales from 2003 to 2007, while Japan harpooned more than four times that during the 2007 whaling season alone. In 2005, the ICR made waves when it announced that it planned to include 50 humpback whales in its quota; the ICR eventually refrained from fulfilling it, however, due to backlash.
The ICR's major research project, known as JARPA, is divided into two phases. The first lasted from 1987 until March 2005, and JARPA II picked up in 2005 and will continue for at least six years thereafter. The ICR refers to the JARPA programs as long-term studies on sustainable management. As part of the research process, the ICR uses both lethal and nonlethal study methods to ascertain whale population sizes and dynamics, reproductive health, impact on the marine ecosystems and other information. According to the ICR, it must catch a large number of whales to ensure a statistically significant research population.
The ICR has been accused of being a sham organization with little to show for this long-term research, but that isn't entirely accurate. Scientists involved in the JARPA projects routinely defend the legitimacy and importance of their findings.
NEXT: ICR Research Findings
HOW THE ICR WORKS: ICR Research Findings
In 2005, anti-whaling factions of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) didn't greet the new JARPA II program with enthusiasm. For example, a panel of four scientists voiced their concerns over the expanded whale research plan in the journal Nature. Within the detailed commentary, they argued that the Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR) has shared few relevant findings with the scientific community.
The ICR responded in a letter to the journal, claiming that the organization had submitted more than 150 papers to the Scientific Committee of the IWC and had published 79 articles in peer-reviewed journals. Furthermore, according to the ICR Web site, the organization has presented 182 papers to the Scientific Committee and had 91 studies published.
Some major ICR study findings include:
- Whale blubber thickness has decreased in the past 30 years. This is most likely caused by a decrease in food supply, which could be influenced by the rebounding whale populations following the commercial moratorium.
- According to ICR estimates, whales eat six times the amount of fish resources as humans. The mammals reportedly gulp down 551 million tons of food every year.
- The ICR and the Japanese government are genetically labeling cetacean samples on the market to help identify illegal products.
- Minke whale populations are on the rise and require management. Otherwise, other aquatic species, such as popular tuna, will suffer.
The Japanese government and the ICR defend the whaling research as necessary steps to manage and conserve crucial marine resources. And while the ICR has plenty of data to show for more than 20 years of whaling research, it has done little to quell the tide of controversy. In 2005, 63 scientists from 16 delegations at the IWC signed a paper contesting Japan's research methodology and conclusions. For instance, the minke whale population surge was contradicted a study at Stanford University that showed gradual — not rapid — growth.
But to anti-whaling nations and organizations, the ICR's lethal research methods and study conclusions are merely building blocks of a pro-commercial whaling agenda.
NEXT: A Whale of a Controversy
HOW THE ICR WORKS: A Whale of a Controversy
As evidenced by the high seas face-off between the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's boats and the fleet from the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) depicted on "Whale Wars," a fierce environmental controversy surrounds the Japanese nonprofit. Point and counterpoint arguments between anti-whaling proponents and the ICR have splashed across the pages of scientific journals and across the aisles at meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
One of the primary sources of contention is whether the ICR can study whales without killing them in the process. Anti-whaling scientists maintain that nonlethal skin biopsies and fecal samples would provide the same level of information as obtained through lethal capture.
Since 1987, when JARPA began, the ICR has harpooned an estimated 8,300 whales. Granted, the ICR integrates visual and photographic surveys, acoustic surveys and nonlethal biopsies as part of their whale population studies. But the organization insists that whale carcasses are essential for precise measurement of age (ear plugs), maturation (reproductive systems), food consumption (digestive systems) and health conditions (blubber). As mentioned earlier, the ICR defends its relatively high quotas as a step to ensuring a statistically significant population.
Another major sore spot in the whaling debate is the trickledown of whale meat from the ICR to the marketplace. For instance, a study published in Science magazine found that minke whale meat on the Japanese market isn't always what it claims to be. Genetic testing of whale products from 1993 to 1999 showed that about 10 percent of the goods contained protected whale species that are illegal to catch, including fin, blue, gray and humpback. The ICR countered that it can't account for every bit of whale that ends up on the market.
The Japanese Whaling Association, which advocates for the return to commercial whaling, considers whale as an important part of Japanese food traditions. From its perspective, restricting what the Japanese can and can't eat is fundamentally wrong and culturally insensitive. It's still stocked in plenty of fish markets and served in restaurants and schools. However, consumer surveys suggest that few Japanese people regularly eat whale meat and that ICR has had trouble getting rid of its excess whale in recent years.
As the IWC gears up for its 2009 meeting, there appear to be few signs of relenting on either side of the whaling controversy. In May 2009, six member nations of the IWC, including Japan and Australia, met to broker a deal on reducing Japan's proposed Antarctic quota of 985 with no success. Depending on perspective one takes, the IWC's allowance of scientific whaling is either a disastrous slippery slope to whale slaughter or a laudable step toward sustainable management. Only time — and the future livelihood of cetacean species — will determine which side will win.