The Facts, "Facts" and Fiction of Scientific Whaling

(from "Science & Technology In Japan", Vol. 8, No. 31, July 1989)

Fukuzo Nagasaki

The following article was compiled from two interviews conducted with FUKUZO NAGASAKI, executive director of the Institute of Cetacean Research. Both scientific and political viewpoints are expressed, and it should therefore be clarified that Nagasaki is a scientist, not a politician.

The Institute of Cetacean Research was established as a non-profit organisation by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries in October 1987, to undertake scientific research on whales following the introduction of a moratorium on commercial whaling.

All photos courtesy of FUJIO KASAMATSU, senior scientist at the same institute.

A parable tells of three blind men confronted by an elephant. One touches the leg, and concludes the elephant is built like a tree. The next grasps the trunk and believes the elephant to be a giant snake. The third strokes the side, and describes a solid wall.

A parallel exists here with the controversy over commercial whaling. No matter how long or hard proponents and opponents debate the subject, they never seem to be looking at the same animal.

There are, of course, several aspects which have to be brought into perspective - ethical, cultural, scientific and political - and objectivity is inevitably compromised by one's order of priorities.

It is also in the nature of believers in causes to practice selective myopia, intentionally or otherwise seeing only those "facts" which support their particular foregone conclusions.

Japan is a proponent of whaling, and stands accused of bending facts to suit its ends as much as anyone. Unfortunately though, many of Japan's accusers outside the scientific community have little understanding of whom or what they are really opposing. I say "unfortunate" not only for misrepresented Japan, but also for the conservation movement which, by spreading misinformation, has stabbed itself in the foot.

The fragile footing on which much opposition is founded is then shored up by misleading journalism. In an age when we are inclined to revere the printed word as gospel truth, it is little wonder that an already complex scientific dispute has become further clouded by emotions fueled by inaccurate insinuation.

It is, for example, widely believed by the general public in the West that Japan flagrantly ignores the International Convention of Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), established in 1946. This is not true.

The controversy recently reached a zenith with the launch by Japan of a scientific whaling program. (Again, the media like to put "scientific" in quotations. This implies "Believe that, if you can!", while exonerating the journalist of any obligation to defend his libellous insinuation.)

Against this confused, and often sordid, backdrop, let us look at the "facts" as Japan sees them with regard to the scientific and political aspects. Cultural and ethical aspects are best dealt with elsewhere.

The "Facts"

Japan makes no secret of its hope to resume commercial whaling as soon as possible, and is now conducting scientific research to help the International Whaling Commission (IWC) determine the advisability of a partial lifting of its moratorium from 1990.

Certain points should be noted here. Firstly, if and when this happens, Japan will only harvest the relatively plentiful minke whale. We believe that stocks of other species, in particular the bryde's whale, may be sufficient to support future exploitation, but population analyses are presently insufficient. In fact we have no clear idea of stock size for any species other than minke.

More importantly, we have at present absolutely no intention of catching such species as blue or sperm whale in the Antarctic, because of their low stock levels. This fact is ignored by media sensationalists as statistics on the depleted stocks of these species make far more compelling reading than do estimates of the minke stock.

For example, following this May's IWC meeting in San Diego, the "revelation" was made by the media that the blue whale stocks in the Antarctic were seriously depleted. Scientists have known this for over 20 years. And to talk of blue whales in the same context as the commercial whaling dispute is to imply by association that Japan wants to catch blue whales. The irresponsibility of such journalism is outrageous.

Secondly, contrary to accusations, our scientific whaling program is in no way a disguised commercial operation. As if this claim needed support, a glance at the accounts should dispel any doubts (see Box I).

And thirdly, there is a widely held misconception that Japan's scientific program runs counter to the spirit of the ICRW and to the will of the IWC which is responsible for enforcing the convention. As we will see later, Japan is at loggerheads not with the IWC but with the US, which condescendingly strives to compensate for what it sees as the IWC's failings.

International Convention

Japan's stance on whaling is to ensure the rational management and utilisation of whale resources on a sustained basis, and the orderly development of whaling. This conforms exactly with both the spirit and the letter of the ICRW (see Box II).

The scientific research program likewise is in accordance with the spirit and the letter of the convention, as contained in Article VIII (1).

This adherence to the convention cannot be denied, but can be misrepresented. A popular British science journal, for example, recently stated that since the 1982 moratorium on whaling "several countries have managed to continue whaling by exploiting the small print in the IWC's rules." The term "exploiting the small print", with all its negative innuendo, is actually not true, unless one counts everything following a headline as "small print". Another term used with gay abandon is "loophole".

Might I suggest that "exploiting small print" and climbing through "loopholes" are two arts of which the media themselves are masters. If dry, accurate reporting lacks colour, make it wet and inaccurate. Your editor will thank you.

And adding to the farcicality of the loophole accusation is that up until the 1972/73 season, that same "loophole" of Article VIII was being used by other countries not legitimately as Japan had done, but to conduct what patently were disguised commercial operations. (The worst offender, ironically, was the US which, between 1965/66 and 1969/70, announced plans to catch up to 400 sperm whales and up to 340 gray whales in the name of scientific research.)

The dry facts are these: The convention has three basic aims, which have no ranking in terms of importance. These aims are to conserve whale stocks, ensure their rational utilisation, and ensure the orderly development of the whaling industry. It is implicit in the convention that these aims be more or less harmonised.

In reality, however, opponents of whaling have emphasised only conservation while others, particularly in industry, emphasise only utilisation. Neither side is correct.

Objection to Moratorium

At its 1982 annual meeting in Brighton, England, the IWC adopted a moratorium on all commercial whaling, to take effect from 1986. Article V (3) of the ICRW, however, gives contracting governments the right of objection to amendments, and states that such amendments "shall become effective with respect to all Contracting Governments which have not presented objection (within a specified time frame) but shall not become effective with respect to any Government which has so objected until such date as the objection is withdrawn."

This right of objection was exercised by Japan. In so doing, Japan did not, as many would believe, turn its nose up at the authority of the IWC.

Such lofty bodies as the United Nations give a certain elite the right of veto, a right frequently exercised by the US. Signatories to the Geneva Convention have been known to ignore that convention. But Japan neither vetoed nor ignored the IWC amendment; it merely exercised the right to object.

The IWC is made up of government representatives, with scientists attending plenary sessions only as observers. There is, however, a Scientific Committee which meets prior to the IWC plenary meeting and serves in an advisory capacity. Japan's objection to the moratorium stemmed from the fact that the Scientific Committee meeting in 1982 never even considered the need for anything as drastic as a moratorium. The moratorium was proposed and adopted by government representatives without a scientific basis.

The hot subject among scientists at the 1982 meeting was the minke whale in the Southern Hemisphere, which Japan and the USSR were still catching commercially. The Committee submitted to the IWC an estimate for the total abundance of minke in the Southern Hemisphere of 260,000, a number which, in the opinion of Japan, was large enough to support continued commercial whaling.

(The International Decade of Cetacean Research [IDCR] has been conducting a sighting program for minke whales in the Antarctic Ocean since 1978/79 funded by the IWC. Mainly reflecting improvements in sighting methodology, IDCR estimates of minke have gradually increased and amounted to about 700,000 following the 1988/89 survey.)

The IWC moratorium which followed, however, applied to all species. It made no differentiation between the robust minke stock and the depleted stocks of some species already classified as protected.

Of course there were probably some scientists who were in favour of a moratorium, maybe even for minke, but it was not a majority opinion of the Scientific Committee. If it had been, it would have been reflected in the scientific report to the IWC, but there was nothing.


The key word in the moratorium was "uncertainty". The IWC asserted that because reliable data were lacking on whale populations, it would be irresponsible to continue setting catch quotas until such data became available.

This view is reflected in the contingent clause stating that the IWC would undertake "comprehensive assessment" of whale stocks by 1990, using the best scientific data available. By "comprehensive assessment", the IWC meant looking at whale stocks from every angle, including both conservation and utilisation.

Following the moratorium's adoption, Japan engaged actively in Scientific Committee discussions of the catch-stock relationship for various whale species, but some members continued to claim "uncertainty". This fear was impossible to dispel as even Japan conceded that available data, derived mostly from commercial operations, were hopelessly unreliable. Whalers naturally target larger whales in areas of high population density.

Both camps - proponents and opponents - therefore stuck to their guns with neither able to produce persuasive evidence in support of their cause. It was clear that a consensus of opinion was impossible, and in all Scientific Committee reports since 1982, two diametrically opposed schools of thought have been omnipresent.

On one side are the scientists of Norway, Iceland, the USSR, Japan, S. Korea and Peru - the whaling nations - and, on the other, scientists led by the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Australia and N. Zealand. There has been nothing in between. We are completely polarised, and it has been impossible to reach any consensus, even on minor points.

Clearly there was a need to dispel the uncertainty by introducing some reliable data, derived from a non-commercial sampling. Studies of whale populations which rely on data derived from commercial catches are unrepresentative in terms of age, sex and distribution. With such unreliability built in, other parameters such as natural mortality rate cannot be estimated with any confidence.

The principle parameters required in order to determine optimum levels of whale harvesting are: i) total population, and ii) rate of population change. The basis for assessing changes in population size is analysis of the age-sex composition. Clearer understanding of the population dynamics can then be obtained from natural mortality rate and pregnancy rate by age.

It is important to note that in the research plan which was subsequently to be drawn up by the Japanese government, age-specific rates, rather than rates by age group, were included at the request of scientists opposed to whaling, not because we believed it necessary. Anti-whaling biologists said that natural mortality was essential for population analysis, and that it should be age-specific.

This was to prove significant as determining age-specific parameters requires far larger samples than determining those same parameters by age group. These biologists were well aware of this fact, and there are two conceivable reasons why they made this request. Either they believed that the sample size would outrage the public and force Japan to back down, or they believed we would give up in despair at the impossibility of the task. But of course it backfired on them, because we said "OK, we'll do it".

Research Plan

In 1987, the Japanese government drafted a research plan based on representative sampling following a well designed procedure. The Institute of Cetacean Research was subsequently established, with the intention of enacting this plan from the 1987/88 season.

The main aims of the plan were: i) to gather basic data which could be used for the comprehensive assessment of minke stocks in the Southern Hemisphere, ii) to gather data on various large whales in Antarctic waters such as fin and sei whales, and iii) to gather basic information on the ecosystem in Antarctic waters.

Basically, the plan involved concurrent sighting and sampling in two areas, designated IV and V, these to be covered partially by the billiard method. Samples would be taken of minke feeding close to the pack ice and also of migrating schools offshore.

The most valuable information anticipated from the survey was natural mortality rate by age. This would be estimated from a sample size of 1,650 taken over two consecutive seasons, or 825 each season. There would then be a recess of two years, and again another 1,650 samples would be taken over two seasons. The two sets of samples could then be compared to calculate natural mortality rate by age.

We believed the sample size to be rather small for calculating age-specific natural mortality, and predictably biologists who had proposed calculating this parameter said it was impossible. But with the help of mathematicians we showed, to our satisfaction at least, that age frequencies and mortality could be figured out on a theoretical basis. By then combining samplings and simultaneous sightings, we could extrapolate these relative figures with ease to obtain absolute figures.

This plan it was which really put the cat among the pigeons. While no one could deny the desirability of hard scientific data, opponents in the US split into those who cried the sample size was far too large and those who cried it was far too small for the parameters Japan hoped to obtain, and as such the project might as well be scrapped.

The intention of the US had always been quite clear: it wanted Japan to abandon the research program. However, since the time the research plan was proposed, there has seemed to be no unified opinion even in the US camp.

Some opponents have said that 825 or even 300 samples are too many. Meanwhile, chief biologists in Washington have publicly stated that to figure out natural mortality by age, it is necessary to take at least 10,000 samples, and probably 20,000. If this need were clearly explained, perhaps we could agree to shelve the program, but it is difficult not to be suspicious as some of these biologists are the same ones who insisted on our determining age-specific parameters in the first place.

Another opposition banner was also unfurled at this time, which has since gained unwarranted credibility. The claim that all data can be obtained without lethal sampling owes its aura of credibility to a scientifically illiterate public which believes scientists today can tell your favourite TV program just by examining a toe nail clipping.

Undeniably, much useful information can be gleaned without resorting to killing. Total abundance, for example, is best estimated by sightings. But assessing population dynamics is quite a different matter. It is vital to have data on age-sex composition and pregnancy rate by age, and at present there is no practical means of telling a whale's age without killing it.

In the case of baleen whales such as minke, age can only be determined by counting the annual rings in the ear-plug, while for toothed whales the teeth reveal the age. Non-scientists believe that blood and skin samples reveal all, but even in the case of humans, for which clinical samples have abounded since the first surgeon took up his knife, we still cannot determine age from blood and skin alone.

If and when a non-lethal method can be shown to be practical in the field we will gladly abandon killing. In fact, with the advance of science it is inevitable that such a method will eventually emerge.

However, the politics of the situation have obliged Japan to resort to a second line of defence for lethal sampling which we wish was not necessary: lack of time. The IWC is to begin its comprehensive assessment in 1990, and scientific data is thus needed rather urgently.

US Threats

Yet despite being pressed for time, the Japanese government chose to postpone the original plan and to conduct a smaller-scale feasibility study. This change of tack resulted from political considerations, and marked the final retreat in the face of a storm which had been blowing for some years outside of the IWC. The whaling controversy had become politically charged and thrown into the same arena as trade disputes, for exploitation by political opportunists.

Chiefly responsible for whipping up the storm was Washington, which had taken the hard-nosed stance that if Japan didn't stop whaling in whatever form, it would lose the right to fish in US waters. This threat, manifested in 1979 as the Packwood-Magnusson Act, was highly effective: Japan promised to withdraw its objection and to cease all commercial whaling from the end of the 1987/88 season.

The US, of course, is not the IWC, and as far as the latter is concerned, Japan could have continued both its objection and commercial whaling. But the US has never been averse to throwing its weight around, either overtly or covertly, and in this case was covertly prodding the Japanese government very hard beneath the table.

In fact, even the apparent coincidence of US opinion and IWC opinion on many matters is not so coincidental. The political and economic weight of the US gives it enormous influence over IWC members, to the degree that sometimes they appear to be one and the same. It is said that the US controls, directly or indirectly, more than 50% of IWC votes, in particular those of members which have no interest in, and know little or nothing about, whales.

But ironically, once Japan had submitted to the brutal Packwood-Magnusson Act, the Act was to lose all its teeth. The Act was conceived at a time when Japan took a sizable catch of bottom fish in US waters, but the US fishing fleet was improving rapidly, and was eventually adjudged capable of catching all US fish on its own. The real reason, of course, was the trade deficit, not technological capability, but the effect was the same: from 1988, all quotas for foreign fleets were scrapped, and the Act became an anachronism.

Japan now takes almost no fish in US waters because it has almost no quota, so the ever resourceful US has been obliged to dream up a new weapon, the Perry Amendment Act. Now the threat is that if Japan doesn't stop killing whales, the US may impose a complete ban on all imports of Japanese fisheries products.

It is this kind of high-handed threat from Washington which has dominated back-room talks on whaling since 1982. While the IWC as a body should remain impartial to its members, and while Japan sincerely hopes that it will, it is sometimes hard to believe that the opposition is not stacking the deck. Japan will continue to respect the democratic authority of the IWC, and will continue to push its case at IWC meetings, but we cannot help feeling sometimes that our carefully drafted speeches are falling on deaf ears.

But we have no intention of changing our minds; we are thinking our own way. It would be wrong, however, to believe that we are conducting this research for pleasure. It takes a lot of money and energy, and ties up large boats and capable biologists. So perhaps the one thing we and our opponents agree on is that it's all rather stupid!

Nonetheless, the research program will not be a complete waste of time and effort. Scientists worldwide, not just in the IWC, will share our results, and whatever it is that our research uncovers cannot help but be of some value to the scientific community - if, of course, they choose to understand it.

San Diego

If there is a moral to this tale, it was learned in San Diego this spring. That moral might variously be read as "where there's a will, there's a way", or "adversity spawns ingenuity".

Japanese and other IWC scientists are developing some extremely interesting management methods for whale stocks. These methods show that with absolutely no information on population parameters, we can still manage stocks well enough to enable catching without endangering those stocks.

One such method, which was well accepted by the IWC's Scientific Committee, was developed by Prof. Shoichi Tanaka, a bio-mathematician formerly of Tokyo University. Tanaka's management concept is not so difficult, but requires lengthy computer simulations.

His technique appears to be a contradiction: even with no information in your hand, you can manage a stock extremely well. It's an empirical method which uses two parameters. One is the level of population and the other is which way it is moving, up or down. It is not necessary to know absolute abundance; the only data you need are on the trend of the stock over a period of time. If the stock is increasing slightly while you are taking 200, you can increase the catch from 200 to 210, while the stock continues to increase.

This adaptive empirical methodology thus puts weight not on the total abundance of stock but on the direction of the stock. It's a whole new concept of management.

Predictably, a US biologist in San Diego, who is a powerful force on the Scientific Committee, tried to turn our new weapon against us. If, he argued, the IWC approved this new method of management, there would be no need for us to continue our scientific research to determine natural mortality rate.

But according to Tanaka, his method would require perhaps 30 or 40 years before a stable yield point for a stock could be ascertained. However, with some idea of population size and natural mortality rate, we could fix stable catch quotas in 5 or 10 years with ease. In fact, it is his opinion that commercial operations could resume from this year.

Of course, opponents of whaling would say that the moral lesson which Japanese perseverance teaches is "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!"