Human Interaction

Whale Wars What are Japanese whalers researching?

posted: 05/15/12
by: Jessika Toothman
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The Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru — the world's only whale factory ship — at a Tokyo pier on April 15, 2008. That season, the Japanese whaling fleet killed only 60 percent of its target number of 1,000 whales.
AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
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Japanese whalers certainly have their critics. But according to the whalers, they're conducting important research that will help keep whale populations flourishing and provide us with a greater understanding of how environmental issues affect whales as a whole.

The Hunt

Each year, a small fleet of Japanese vessels hits the high seas in the western North Pacific and around Antarctica in the Southern Ocean to kill and collect a set number of samples under the International Whaling Commission's sanctioned scientific permitting program. Their targets are predominantly minke whales, a species of baleen whale that averages about 26 feet (8 meters) in length. During the 2010 whale hunt, they took in 507 minke whales and one fin whale, according to BBC News. Since the IWC had reviewed permits to take in close to 1,000 whales, the haul was drastically lower than the whalers had intended. The lower count was largely due to interference from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as featured on "Whale Wars."

The Research

So what do Japanese whalers plan on doing with all the whales they've killed? According to the Fisheries Agency of Japan, their research has four main general objectives. For starters, they're seeking to determine what role whales play in the overall scheme of marine ecology and what effect environmental changes have on whale populations. Researchers are also looking for ways to improve marine management, by way of examining the biological parameters and stock structures of different whale species. They do this mainly through conducting sighting surveys and investigating biological samples.

To put it a little more plainly, some topics Japanese researchers are hoping to get a better understanding of include natural whale mortality and reproductive rates, the effect water pollution has on the whale population, how overall whale populations wax and wane over time, where whales migrate geographically, how different whale species compete with one another, and what and how much individual whales eat.

Not all the research that's conducted is lethal. As we mentioned earlier, some involves visual population tallies, as well as acoustic studies, biopsy sampling and mark-recapture tracking. Scientists also study aspects of whale behavior and social dynamics in order to learn more about the communal life of whales.

Some nations say that nonlethal research is, in fact, all that's necessary. In March 2009, Australia and New Zealand formed the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, an initiative aimed at studying whales without killing them and at reforming the IWC. Both countries have made their opposition to Japan's whaling activities well-known.

"The Australian government has said repeatedly that we do not have to kill whales to study them," said Peter Garrett, Australian Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, in a Nov. 2009 press release issued when the Japanese whaling fleet left for the Southern Ocean.

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