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Japan’s “scientific research”: Non-lethal alternatives.

3 Apr 2014

On the 31st March 2014, the UN’s International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Australia’s case against Tokyo’s scientific research programme JARPA II. Japan has taken 14,000 whales under the pretence of scientific research since the 1986 ban on commercial whaling. Koji Tsuruoka, Japanese government’s chief negotiator, said Japan would comply with the ruling. “As a state that respects the rule of law.”


This is a great victory for countless NPO’s who have worked tirelessly to end Japanese whaling in Antarctic waters. However, it is not time yet to celebrate the end of whaling as there is still scope for Japan to resume whaling in the future under terms which would constitute “scientific research”. It is presumed that Japan shall remain a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) for political reasons and will not simply disregard the IWC and begin commercial whaling as Iceland and Norway currently do.


If a country is legally allowed hunt for scientific research, can we propose alternative methods which would render lethal take invalid? Here are some examples of non-lethal research methods in use today:


  • Acoustic surveys:


Acoustic surveying for marine mammals is a non-invasive method of gaining information of populations. Incoming vocalisations can be digitised through specialised software allowing the operator to distinguish species, distance and even population estimates. The use of acoustic monitoring can help researchers to locate animals deep in the water column which are not visible from surface waters. Analysis of acoustic signals can also help researchers to understand what these signals might mean. It is now widely accepted that dolphin have signature whistles which identify them as individuals. Other sounds can be detected in relation to various animal behaviours, deep sea feeding for example and determining regional dialects.


  • Molecular analysis:


Once an argument for killing whales, it is now possible to acquire molecular information from live whales. Analysis of lipids and nucleic acids can provide data including age, population size, structure and demographics. These samples are relatively easily obtained from skin or blubber biopsy darts. Analysis of whale faeces can also produce evidence of prey species through DNA identification. This information is a fundamental facet in understanding the ecology of an animal.


  • Genetic analysis:


The benefits of genetic analysis of biopsy samples are far reaching. In the first instance, sex, relationships, population structures can be identified. Boundaries of populations and migration patterns can be realised by cross referencing data. More profoundly, upon examination, whale meat can be traced back to the source species, population or even individual. This is an important tool in the monitoring of any whaling practice be it commercial, scientific or illegal trade.


  • Visual observations:


Visual observations may be conducted from land, on-board vessels or platforms at sea and aerial surveys may be performed in aircraft. Visual surveys of cetaceans can result in positive identification of species, population size, behaviour, inter-species association, and prey species. Permanent records can be produced and peer reviewed with good quality photography and high definition video. Individuals can be identified and catalogued by photographing dorsal fins and tail flukes. This information can be used to follow relationship patterns, age, site fidelity, migration routes etc.


  • Satellite tagging:


Researchers may attach satellite tags to cetaceans to track population structure, site fidelity, migration patterns and recovery rates of stranded or entangled animals. Tags transmit their location to satellites which are orbiting Earth and data is collected until the tag runs out of battery and/or detaches from the animal.


Something which we may consider is that if you wish to study the behaviour and biology of an animal, it is much more sensible to study an animal which is alive and interacting with its natural environment. More than enough animals have been captured and studied over the centuries to give an in-depth insight into cetacean anatomy. Necropsy of stranded marine mammals can give invaluable insight into the cause of death and an overview of any toxins, anthropogenic impacts, predation etc.


Conservation and population management can and should always be accomplished without lethal take of marine mammals. Let’s hope the IWC never again allows the harvest of marine mammals under the guise of scientific research.


By Amy Ferguson 

Whalefish Blogger


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