Meeting papers released by the International Whaling Committee (IWC) this week reveal that Japan slaughtered 333 whales in Antarctic waters during the 2017/18 austral season – apparently, all in the name of "scientific research". Of those, more than 120 were pregnant.
Japan says it must continue this (almost) annual practice to understand "the structure and dynamics of the Antarctic marine ecosystem.” Instead of hunting, they call it "biological sampling" and maintain it's essential to kill the whales to estimate their age, which they do by examining the size of the animal's earwax plugs. They also say they need to see the contents of the whale's stomach to estimate prey consumption as well as its blubber thickness, girth, and fat weight to estimate the specimen's health.
FYI, there is no scientific need to continue the practice of whale hunting. DNA sampling, remote monitoring, and sighting surveys are sufficient and relatively unintrusive methods that seem to be just as effective at monitoring whale behavior and population trends. Instead, the "scientific research" excuse is generally used by some countries to get around regulations on whaling, introduced in 1946 to limit commercial and aboriginal subsistence whaling.
It just so happens that Japan also allows the sale of whale meat in markets and restaurants – once done with the scientific research, of course.
The papers show that, in total, 344 Antarctic minke whales were targeted and, of those, 333 were killed during the last season. More than two-thirds hit were pregnant females. A further 114 immature whales (61 male and 53 female) were also hunted.
Minke Antarctic whales are a closely related but different species to the common minke whale and are only found in the Southern Hemisphere. It does not have a category on the IUCN Red List because there is not enough data to calculate its population.
The news of the latest hunt has been met with criticism.
"It is further demonstration, if needed, of the truly gruesome and unnecessary nature of whaling operations, especially when non-lethal surveys have been shown to be sufficient for scientific needs,” said Alexia Wellbelove, the Humane Society International senior program manager, reports the Sunday Morning Herald. She adds that the whales already face risks to do with marine pollution and commercial fishing by-catch.
But it is worth pointing out that Japan isn't the only country that practices whaling – or the only country to utilize the "scientific research" loophole. Norway and Iceland continue to openly hunt whales for commercial reasons, flouting the international convention. This year, Norway upped its yearly whaling quota to 1,278 common minke whales.
And despite Japan's dwindling taste for whale meat, officials have already set their eyes on the re-introduction of commercial whaling. The Sunday Morning Herald reports they aim to hunt some 4,000 whales over the next 12 years.