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. The committee has operated under a scientific formula that tries to define a "maximum sustainable yield," or how many whales of a particular species can be slaughtered without risking its extinction. The idea is to kill only "surplus" whales, enough to reduce the population and trigger a species' tendency to boost its reproductio n rate when its population shrinks.
Three years ago, scientists from Japan and Iceland came up with a formula that would allow a flexible number of kills with only periodic monitoring. But last year, the scientific committee decided to consider a method scientists from nonwhaling nations had proposed.
"It's rather ironic," says Kazumi Sakuramoto, assistant professor at the Tokyo Fisheries University, who came up with one of the plans. "Being scientists themselves ... they [anti-whaling members] were no longer able to win their argument merely by repeating that resource management cannot be done. So, they came up with their own version."
Some scientists say Japan's lethal research will not strongly influence an IWC decision on resource management, although the information gathered could be useful. One of its findings, for instance, based on wandering patterns and pregnancies, reveals that the minke population growth rate is 7.5 percent in a particular area. The institute claims this rate is significantly higher than past assumptions.
Others disagree about the merits of the research. "Lethal research is illogical and not viable," says Clark. "From a bioscientific point of view, it is impossible and irrational to cover a vast area such as the ocean to put together ecology and genetics of whales by killing 300 a year. We can't even do this with rodents in a closed environment."
Adds Dr. Toshio Kasuya, director of the Far Seas Fisheries Institute, a Japanese government research body, "ICR research results are dependable, but ... it is doubtful that they can reach any actual conclusions."
Many scientists and environmentalists support nonlethal whale-research methods, such as sighting surveys or sampling a whale's genetic structure from small flesh samples.
ICR, however, is skeptical of the effectiveness of such methods. "What they are suggesting is idealistic and is merely an armchair theory," says Dr. Seiji Ohsumi, ICR's executive director.
Developing benign research using whale genetics would take too much money, time, and resources, says Dr. Fukuzo Nagasaki, ICR director general.
Also, ICR officials argue that minkes are not like other whales, which can be monitored through sighting surveys. Minkes are small, fast, lack distinctive individual body marks, and show only a small part of their bodies above water.
"I think it's nearly impossible to follow any given minke by mere observation," says Ryoko Zenitani, a researcher who has worked on the ICR vessel.
As for the possibility of a green light being given by the IWC, Dr. Sakuramoto says that the IWC may accept the proposed formula, but that it may stall by asking for more surveys.