Japan's dubious campaign to `research' whales

JAPAN takes pride in being on the cutting edge of scientific research, but the only cutting edge in Japan's dubious ``research whaling'' proposal is the exploding tip of the harpoons that will be blasted into 300 minke whales. Japan's latest research proposal is a thinly veiled attempt to skirt the International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling. The planned slaughter flies in the face of world opinion and violates United States law as well as a US-Japanese agreement aimed at ending Japan's commercial whaling operations.

By exploiting a loophole in the moratorium, Japan and a handful of other nations have made a mockery of the ban on commercial whaling by killing whales under the guise of science.

The Japanese proposal to kill 300 minke whales in the Antarctic is little more than a watered-down version of a June proposal to take 825 minke and 50 sperm whales a year for 10 years. Convinced that the scientific merit of the plan was negligible, the Whaling Commission voted it down, 18 to 8. Japan hopes the commission's scientific committee, which has convened a special meeting for Dec. 15-17 to consider the proposal, will find the kill figures so innocuous as to overlook the proposal's glaring scientific shortcomings.

In June, the Japanese proposed the minke whale kill, ostensibly to provide improved estimates of minkes' natural mortality rates so as to estimate population better. As outlined by the commission, comprehensive assessments of whale populations must be embarked upon by 1990 to gauge the effectiveness of the commercial moratorium. Ironically, the Japanese proposed massacring more than 8,000 minke whales in hopes of proving the whales are abundant enough not to merit protection from Japanese whalers after 1990.

The commission's scientific committee determined that the original proposed hunt was unnecessary and the Japanese methods scientifically flawed.

The proposed sperm whale hunt was even more insubstantial. No sperm whales have been killed in the Antarctic since the commission declared their populations seriously depleted in 1981. Japan proposed slaughtering the sperm whales to research their stomach contents, even though it is known that squid are their primary food source. When pressed by the scientific committee as to why they didn't avail themselves of existing research, Japanese scientists admitted that they were really interested in studying the stomach content of the squid. They did not, however, have a squid biologist on their ``research'' team, nor could they name one. Killing whales is a burdensome way to trap squid!

Japan repackaged the proposal as a feasibility study, dropping the sperm hunt and lowering the minke kill figures. Japan now wants to kill 300 minke whales to prove it's feasible to kill 8,000 more.

The flimsiness of Tokyo's research proposal demonstrates Japan's contempt for the commission's moratorium and its obstinate determination to bolster its besieged, economically insignificant whaling industry. Even if faced with a rejection of the proposal by the scientific committee, the Japanese are likely to carry out the kill this winter. Crewed by Japanese ``researchers'' - the same whalers that have exploited the Antarctic for years - the fleet's mother ship is in Tokyo Harbor, its engines running, ready to set off for the hunt.

Under the Packwood-Magnuson amendment, the US Commerce Department must bring sanctions against any nation that ``diminishes the effectiveness'' of the Whaling Commission. In an effort to avoid a confrontation over whaling, the Commerce Department worked out a deal with Japan in 1984. The US would forgo sanctions if Japan would agree to phase out its commercial whaling operations in stages by 1988, three seasons after the international moratorium took effect.

The Commerce Department hailed the deal as the end of Japanese whaling. But Japan would not be shaken so easily. In April, the week after its fleet returned from what was to be the ``last'' Antarctic kill, Japan announced a 10-year research hunt.

Truly ending commercial whaling hinges on curtailing future Japanese hunts. The moratorium on whaling was long overdue. But it may have come too late for some species. Eight of the nine types of great whales are now listed as endangered, and some have been hunted to the point of being commercially extinct. Conservationists find little solace that whalers are now concentrating on the more abundant and smaller minke whales.

The same unrestrained greed that came close to destroying the great whales must not be allowed to decimate the few relatively healthy stocks that remain. The ``Save the Whale'' movement of the 1970s was one of the most effective conservationist efforts in history, successfully transforming the Whaling Commission from a ``whalers club'' into a respected international body attempting to protect the whales. The commission cannot remain effective without public vigilance against the transgressions of the few renegade members that threaten its integrity.

The battle to save the whales has not ended, but has opened on a more subtle front. Spurious research whaling must be stopped before these so-called ``researchers'' exterminate the whales in the name of science.

Andrew Davis is assistant national media director of Greenpeace USA.

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