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Japan Killed 112 Pregnant Whales in the Name of Scientific Research

The country claims the catch is to obtain a range of data on the creatures

A whale is captured by the Yushin Maru, a Japanese harpoon vessel. (Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Japan is facing heated criticism from conservationists after a report revealed that its whaling vessels killed 333 Antarctic minke whales in the Southern Ocean last summer, purportedly for the sake of scientific research. According to Lorraine Chow of EcoWatch, 122 of the slain whales were pregnant and 114 were immature.

These sobering statistics were included in a report presented this month at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee meeting in Bled, Slovenia. According to Bard Wilkinson of CNN, the paper was prepared by the Institute of Cetacean Research, which is linked to Japan’s fisheries ministry.

The whales were shot with grenade-tipped harpoons, hauled onto a research vessel and dissected on site. Though explosive harpoons are intended to kill whales instantly, research has shown that they frequently do not result in immediate death. The gruesome nature of this hunting method was revealed in distressing detail last year, when the conservation group Sea Shephard released footage of a minke whale struggling after being struck with an explosive harpoon during a Japanese whale hunt that took place in an Australian whale sanctuary.

According to the report, the objective of the latest hunt was to obtain a variety of data about the whales, including their age, sexual maturity, stomach contents and nutritional condition. Much of this information, the authors claim, can only be obtained through “lethal sampling methods.” For instance, the report asserts that the whales’ age can only be ascertained by analyzing earwax plugs that build up over time.

But Alexia Wellbelove, Humane Society International Australia senior program manager, refutes this claim. “[N]on-lethal surveys have been shown to be sufficient for scientific needs,” she says in a statement.

And while Japan claims that its whaling is carried out for scientific purposes, the country allows whale meat to be sold in markets and restaurants, reports Nicole Hasham of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Japan established its scientific whaling program in 1987, one year after the IWC issued a moratorium on the commercial hunting of all whale species. By carrying out its hunts in the name of science, Japan is able to exploit a loophole in international regulations that allow certain quotas of whales to be killed for research.

In 2014, International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s Antarctic whaling program was illegal and ordered it to be brought to an end. Japan responded by revoking its recognition of the International Court of Justice as an arbiter of whaling disputes, according to the Maritime Executive. The country resumed its Southern Ocean whale hunt in 2015.

Japan reportedly plans to hunt around 4,000 whales over the next twelve years. Elaine Lies of Reuters reported last year that the country’s government has “repeatedly said its ultimate goal is the resumption of commercial whaling.”

But activists hope that the latest figures to emerge from the IWC meeting will spur countries to put renewed pressure on Japan to stop its lethal whaling programs.

“Whales are already facing substantial threats including bycatch in fisheries and marine pollution,” Wellbelove says in the Humane Society statement. “Significant conservation efforts are underway worldwide to address these issues, so the least Japan could do is put away the harpoons.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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