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'Sound science' on the whaling grounds

Richard Black | 16:15 UK time, Monday, 22 June 2009

At the International Whaling Commission meeting in Madeira

My bet is that by the time we finish this week's IWC meeting, just about every delegation in the room will have extolled the virtues of making decisions based on "sound science".

Japan has long argued that questions of whether or not whale stocks are robust enough to allow some hunting should be based on "science, rather than emotion" - a stance endorsed by other hunting countries including Iceland, whose IWC commissioner once argued in a memorable quote that "we should not make decisions on the basis of the survival of the cutest".

Fin whale

Now, as discussions continue over whether or not Japan should be allowed to introduce what is effectively a new category of hunting - on a small scale, by coastal communities with a whaling history, and for local consumption [pdf link] - scientists affiliated to one of the organisations most implacably opposed to commercial whaling in any form, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), have also appealed for such decisions to be based on science.

By this they mean deciding on regime for managing this hunt, including catch quotas, using a complex process devised by scientists over many years and endorsed by IWC member nations called the Revised Management Procedure (RMP).

Looking at the situation, you might conclude that everything was sweetness and light, with Japan's Fisheries Agency and one of its fiercest critics snuggled up together, feeling the love (for science, of course) after decades of snarling strife.

Think again; the rocks in this bed are as cold and jagged as ever.

Securing agreement on coastal whaling is, for Japan, a necessary ingredient of a larger deal with anti-whaling countries - a deal that could reduce the overall number of whales being killed each year, and a deal that some powerful forces are very keen to achieve.

Ifaw's concern is that the process of allocating a coastal catch quota may be driven by politics more than science - that science may be short-circuited in the drive to make a deal, resulting in a quota that is unsustainable.

For Japan and the other whaling (or would-be) whaling nations, this appears a rich irony indeed.

The RMP was agreed in 1994, but has never been introduced - according to pro-hunting nations, because anti-whaling forces blocked it, realising that its implementation would effectively end the 1982 moratorium on commercial hunting.

Whale restaurantJapan and its allies dispute the moratorium's scientific validity; and it's certainly the case that some experts argued against the need for a blanket ban at the time, and that others have argued since that some species could be hunted sustainably.

Then there is the years-old dispute about Japan's use of regulations permitting hunting for scientific research to take annual quotas numbering many hundreds.

Is it science, commerce or politics? All these motivations are cited by some.

So what should we make of the use of science - or of the word "science" - in this context? Can either side really claim to hold the torch of scientific purity, and justifiably accuse only the other of using it as a convenient political fig-leaf?

One way of looking at it, I think, is to consider that the same curtain that separates societies into those that won't countenance whaling and those that will also divides scientists along similar lines.

Many of the younger generation, especially, came into the issue with a passion for live cetaceans and a desire to protect them - to use research for conservation of live animals only.

By contrast, scientists who work in hunting nations learn their trade cutting up dead whales, as did researchers of decades gone by in Britain and the US.

The avowedly anti-whaling generation charges that this research produces virtually nothing of benefit. In an age where the major threats to cetaceans come through issues such as climate change, entanglement in fishing nets and being hit by ships, they argue, what use is catching hundreds of them and cutting them up?

One long-time observer of the issue told me here that the IWC's scientific committee - which is supposed to be apolitical - is now more polarised than ever.

That's hardly surprising when you consider that its membership includes researchers who spend their time in government-sponsored Tokyo laboratories dissecting bits of dead whale, and others whose working lives are funded through donations to avowedly anti-whaling organisations such as Ifaw.

From the perspective of scientific output, both approaches include projects that use scientific method; both generate data.

But a meeting of minds? I don't think so.

Purity might be a scientific ideal but in many fields - take climate prediction or alternative medicine - it can rarely be disentangled from the politics of the issue and the scientists' motivation - or, on occasion, their funding.

Whales and whaling perhaps provide the example par excellence.

We should be not surprised if science comes out of this less than squeaky clean; but it might help us to make more sense of the issue if on occasion, parties made clear that when they talk of "sound science" they usually mean "the science that suits us".

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