Whaling for scientific research purposes


A major area of controversy within the international community has been the issuing of permits by States parties to the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) for the killing of whales for scientific research purposes.

caption Greenpeace activists attempt to prevent the transfer of a minke whale onto the deck of the Japanese vessel Nisshin-maru. Japan maintains that the whale is harvested for scientific research purposes. Greenpeace maintains that this act represents an illegal commercial harvest. (Source: Greenpeace international)

Article VIII of the ICRW provides that:

…any Contracting Government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit, and the killing, taking, and treating of whales in accordance with the provisions of this Article shall be exempt from the operation of this Convention. Each Contracting Government shall report at once to the Commission all such authorizations which it has granted. Each Contracting Government may at any time revoke any such special permit which it has granted.

Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government by which the permit was granted (...)

Before 1982, when it was decided that a moratorium on commercial whaling would come into effect in 1986, more than 100 permits for scientific research purposes were issued by a number of governments including Canada, USA, USSR, South Africa and Japan. Since the beginning of the moratorium, Japan, Norway and Iceland have issued scientific research permits. Currently, Iceland and Japan are the two countries that are engaged in whaling for “scientific purposes”.

The applications for the permits are reviewed by the Scientific Committee which has to follow a set of guidelines established by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). One of the most recent guidelines states that:

(the IWC) requests the Scientific Committee, with respect to all Special Permit Research Programmes, to provide advice to the Commission, on the research to be undertaken pursuant to any proposed Special Permit or that has been undertaken in respect of any Special Permit, as to whether the information sought in the research programme under each Special Permit is: required for the purposes of management of the species or stock being researched; and whether the information sought could be obtained by non-lethal means. (Report of the International Whaling Commission 45: 82ff.)

While plenty of information can be obtained by using non-lethal research methods such as biopsy sampling and photo-identification, according to the Scientific Committee of the IWC, data such as the age of an animal (obtained from earplugs) and the reproductive status and history of females (obtained from ovaries) can be obtained only by lethal methods. The question is whether these data are really ‘essential’, ‘reliable enough’ or ‘critical’ to justify the taking of the whales that are studied. Since 1987, a number of IWC Resolutions have expressed concern over the fact that the "provision permitting special permit whaling enables countries to conduct whaling for commercial purposes despite the moratorium on commercial whaling" (IWC Resolution 2003-2), including the notion that non-lethal techniques usually provide better data at less cost to both animals and budget. In 2006, Japan has responded that its research - including the use of lethal techniques - is" consistent with the unanimous decision of the IWC in 2001 to make the study of interactions between whales and fisheries a priority" (The Government of Japan’s Position for the 58th Annual Meeting of the IWC).


According to Dr. Hiroshi Hatanaka (Director of the Institute of Cetacean Research, the Japanese research body that carries out the “scientific research” on whales) “birthing and mortality rates can only be obtained through lethal research and the number of whales taken in our research program is the smallest required to obtaining statistically valid information".

Japan has been engaged in research whaling since 1987. During the first part of the JARPA project (Phase I 1987-2005) Japan took samples of Antarctic minke whales (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) with the declared goal of: (i) estimating the biological parameters to manage stocks of Antarctic minke whales; ii) understanding the role of whales in the Antarctic marine ecosystem and the effect of environmental changes on cetaceans; and iv) understanding the stock structure of Antarctic minke whales. To fulfill the project needs, whales were taken at random, at random locations, within the study area (which includes, despite much criticism and objection within the IWC, the IWC’s Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, where commercial whaling was specifically prohibited so that scientists could study the behavior of whales that are not hunted). The goal of the second part of the project (JARPA II) is to learn about ecosystem changes in shorter time spans and focus on the Antarctic minke whale and the larger cetacean species humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus). The number of Antarctic minke whales to be sampled is 850 (± 10%). JARPA II will result in annual catches that are more than half the total cumulative catches for scientific research by all nations in the past half-century.

Japan has also engaged in whaling for research purposes in the Western North Pacific. The first project – from 1994 to 1999 – was known as JARPN and Japan declared the goal to be to answer questions on stock identity as well as feeding ecology. Once again, no consensus was reached within the IWC as to whether the results from this project could have been obtained using non-lethal research techniques. In 2000 Japan submitted a second proposal for the Western North Pacific called JARPN II, aiming at obtaining information that could allegedly contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of marine living resources (including whales) in the western North Pacific; the 2000 proposal was followed by a revised proposal in 2005 that sought to harvest 220 Antarctic minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera brydei), 100 sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis) and 10 sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). The proposal was met with resistance within the Scientific Committee which disagreed over most aspects of the research. The IWC adopted a resolution that strongly urged Japan to withdraw its JARPA II research proposal or to revise it so lethal means would not be used. Notwithstanding the resistance that both JARPA II and JARPN II have received, in 2005 Japan harvested 220 northern minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), 853 Antarctic minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 50 sei whales, 5 sperm whales and 10 fin whales.

For 2007, Japan plans to increase the number of fin whales caught to 50, and also to harvest up to 50 humpback whales. Some of the humpback whales feeding where Japan intends to conduct “research” come from small, highly depleted pods that breed in the tropical South Pacific. Because gunners on catcher boats cannot identify the pod of origin of the whale, catches in these regions could have disastrous effects in terms of stock recovery for these populations.

While the JARPN II project is still on track as scheduled, JARPA II was cut short and wil not resume until December of 2007 because of a fire on board the research vessel Nisshin Maru that destroyed some research equipment.

Many anti-whaling countries (Australia and the United States for example) believe that the scientific research provision of the ICRW has been used by Japan as a pretext to conduct subsidized commercial whaling. The ICR markets whale meat from the research takes in accordance with directions issued by the Japanese government, and allots the proceeds to fund research for the next year and onwards.


Iceland’s rationale for its research whaling is not much different than that of Japan and is just as open to debate. The Icelandic Marine Research Institute (MRI) initiated research on whales back in 1979, targeting fin whales, sei whales and minke whales. Between 1987 and 1989, 292 fin whales and 70 sei whales were caught for various biological investigations during the four-year study period. In August 2003 a comprehensive research project on minke whales in Icelandic waters was initiated as part of a larger research proposal reviewed by the Scientific Committee of the IWC. In the original proposal annual takes of 100 minke, 100 fin and 50 sei whales were assumed for a period of 2 years. A revised minke whale research proposal called for the take of 200 minke whales in the period of 2003-2007. So far, 161 minke whales have been taken, of which 60 in 2006. In 2007, 39 minke whales will be taken to complete the implementation of the research plan.

Further Reading



Rosen, T. (2007). Whaling for scientific research purposes. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/157094


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