Scientists Clash over Whaling Some Nations Worry Whaling Could Resume If Changes in Whale Management Are Adopted

By Makiko Shinohara, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 1992 | Go to article overview
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Scientists Clash over Whaling Some Nations Worry Whaling Could Resume If Changes in Whale Management Are Adopted


Makiko Shinohara, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AMID the icebergs on the open seas off Antarctica, Greenpeace ecoactivists are waging bow-to-bow skirmishes with a Japanese ship as it hunts, kills, and then studies minke whales in a government-supported research project.

While Greenpeace's confrontation tactics are drawing world attention and official Japanese ire, a more subdued encounter over whales is taking place. A group of scientists who advise the International Whaling Committee (IWC) are attending a workshop in Copenhagen (Feb. 24 to 28) to debate a proposed new formula for maintaining sustainable populations of the giant sea mammals. What the scientists come up with may heavily influence the outcome of the IWC's annual meeting in June.

Anti-whaling members of the committee are concerned because changes in the formula could allow commercial whaling, which has been prohibited since 1985, to resume. "There is pressure because the IWC is getting closer to permitting whaling. This year's meeting will be intense," says Tim Smith, head of the United States scientific delegation to the IWC and chief of marine mammals investigation at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass.

Japan's project, referred to as lethal research, is just one bone of contention among the IWC scientists, who come from both whaling and nonwhaling nations. A larger issue is whether any management formula can adequately calculate the number of whales that can be caught and still maintain a sustainable population. Even among the scientists, feelings are strong.

"What it comes down to is social, cultural, and ethical differences," says Christopher Clark, a member of the IWC's scientific committee and director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "People use science for emotional purposes."

Since the moratorium on commercial whaling went into effect in 1985, Japan has been allowed to kill up to 330 minke whales a year for scientific population studies. The government-backed Japan Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) in Tokyo conducts the studies. One of the institute's aims is to measure the reproductive and mortality rates of the minkes, which it insists can be done only by killing a whale and studying its ears and organs.

Compared with other whale species, the minke population may be large enough to permit "harvesting" in controlled numbers, according to IWC scientists.

But even though the IWC agreed last year that approximately 760,000 minkes inhabit the Antarctic Ocean, the IWC did not allow commercial whaling of minke, citing deficiencies in the present management formula.

Japanese officials say that the IWC is packed with anti-whaling nations. Frustrated with scientific debates being overshadowed by political agendas, Iceland, a pro-whaling nation, announced in January that it would withdraw from the IWC after this year's meeting.

Still, Dr. Clark says, "It's getting harder ... to say it {resumption of whaling} is scientifically invalid."

The IWC was originally set up by whaling nations in 1946 to manage whaling. By 1985, enough nonwhaling nations had joined to make up the majority needed for the moratorium vote.

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