Friday, February 08, 2008

The Whale Hunt and the Abattoir - Grim Reminders; and Other Random Thoughts on the Latest Salvo from Australia

The Australian government has released photos and footage of whales being killed and dragged onto the Japanese whaling ship. Visuals are always effective, and they got a lot of play on BBC and, I suspect, much of the Western media. I’ll talk about some aspects of the public communications efforts later, but first:

We rarely see animals - more precisely animals for which we can feel empathy* - die violently. In fact, if you are a regular viewer of CNN, Fox News and/or BBC and are not an animal documentary fanatic, you will have witnessed far more untimely deaths and their aftermaths befalling humans than animals. This is particularly true in the case of urban denizens of advanced economies, including yours truly (and most likely you as well), who are shielded from the unpleasant realities of the abattoir. We collectively also happen to be the greatest beneficiaries of the science and engineering as applied to the processing and packaging of animals for consumption.

The protocols of death in the case of cattle has been “humanized” in recent decades, thanks to the enthusiasm of animal activists, but possible only through the efforts of scientists and engineers, such as Temple Grandin. By “humane”, I mean, of course, minimized distress and pain to the animal. It is swift, efficient; a far cry from the exhilaration and agony of the chase, the blow and the denouement, the hunt, which cannot fail to invoke thoughts of a lynching. But swift and efficient? Need I remind you what thoughts would arise if we were to see similar images, photos, and video footage of similar duration, of cattle being systematically filed in, to be slaughtered, one after another, and to be benumbed by the sheer bureaucratic monotony?

* My impression is that for most people, this rules out all so-called cold-blooded animals - snakes, fish, insects, etc. - except perhaps frogs. I stand ready to be corrected. There must be some studies out there on this subject by behavioral scientists. And how do I explain Antz and Jiminy Cricket? But then, you can anthropomorphize a teapot. I need to do more thinking on this.

A couple of thoughts with regard to the Australian government’s most recent actions:

First, there’s a meaningful gap between the harsh words of Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett, who, according to BBC told reporters, "It is explicitly clear from these images that this is the indiscriminate killing of whales, where you have a whale and its calf killed in this way," and that "[t]o claim that this is in any way scientific is to continue the charade that has surrounded this issue from day one," and the calm and collected approach of Foreign Minister Stephen Smith reported here in talks with Foreign Minister Kōmura and a session at the Japan National Press Club. Words like “indiscriminate killing” and “charade” are not in harmony with Mr. Smith’s desire “that the whaling dispute would not affect the overall partnership between the two countries”.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, this is what environment ministers do. They tend to be advocators, frontrunners, and jawboning is a most favored, sometimes only, tool available to them. This happens repeatedly in environmental negotiations, when they routinely clash with their industrial, trade, and foreign relations colleagues. Second, Mr. Garrett is playing to the domestic audience. That is compounded by the rowdy, rough-and-tumble nature of political discourse in Australia. My guess is, Mr. Garrett’s statements are milquetoast down under. Here in Japan, though, I suspect that they will be seen as fighting words. If Mr. Garrett’s approach is typical of the “Australian point of view” that “a special envoy” as proposed by Mr. Smith would convey, perhaps it is better for the Labor government to shelve the idea and let the legal process work its course.

My second point is that Mr. Garrett overreaches his evidence when he asserts, according to this AP-CNN report, “that this is the indiscriminate killing of whales, where you have a whale and its calf killed in this way”.

Maybe, maybe not. Who is to judge? After all, one nation’s “random sampling” is another nation’s “indiscriminate killing”. But with regard to “whale and calf”, both AP and BBC fail to mention that the statement issued by Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR) in response to the Australian claims notes that the larger female whale was not lactating.


Sophie said...

It is not very bloody and no more weird than chasing a fleeing pig around to slaughter it. Which I have done a few times, and my mother is a serial chicken murderer.


The pig being chased above has been raised for human consumption. The whale hasn't.

This whaling thing is not scientific research. If it was, then it would mean Japanese scientists are very bad ones. I don't think so.

It is a hunt.

In the case of a hunt, it is intelligent not to kill young animals or females with dependant young, as they will provide you with old animals to hunt later on.
So lamenting on 'whale and calf' is trying to make people cry. But seing a calf being killed is just a display of human stupidity. Or a display of the fact that, this not being sustainable anyway, let's take calves too.

What is this hunt for? It is very expensive to organize that? Who finances it? How much of the meat will be eaten by humans? How much by pets?

It is not scientific research, it is not a hunt for food.
I think it is a stand by Japanese businessmen and politicians who do not want to loose face. But they are, as images are released, and it is nice to see that. Sorry for all the Japanese people who have nothing to do with it.

Jun Okumura said...


I hope to have a response before you are back, but I think it will have tgo be along one, and my latest post has taken too much out of me to do so. Please stay tuned.

Sophie said...

I find this point of view interesting :

I like the idea of a coastal whaling activity for Japan (like for the Inuit), to preserve a tradition dating from well before 1945, and limited to human consumption.

Anyway the unavailability of cheap fuel might limit the Antarctic yearly adventure in the future.

In a comment that failed to appear (blogger commenting system being what it is) in our last discussion, I stated that I think whaling is used to distract international attention from all the other fisheries that Japan is helping deplete.
My Japanese teacher commented this week on 3 euro each pears being sold in Japan, concluding that "only fish is cheap". (I guess she wasn't referring to ōtōro). Well, this must mean that fish is undervalued in Japan. It will become scarce as all the major fishing fleets are busy overfishing and destroying their future for immediate greed.
Making fish expensive is one way of reducing consumption.
Distracting attention by blaming whales that eat too much fish (I've read that, yes) is another way of handling the situation.

Jun Okumura said...


I was struck by your contrast of pigs, which are “raised for human consumption”, and whales, which are not. You assume that the Japanese whale catch is actually “a hunt”, to which you are clearly not opposed in principle. You also say that in the case of a hunt, it is “intelligent not to kill young animals or females with dependant young”. I agree. You could also make a similar argument about kangaroos, unless you consider kangaroos to be pests and want to actively diminish down their population. But that is not the argument that the Australian and New Zealand governments, not to mention the activists who are opposing Japan, are making. And was the smaller whale even a “dependant”? A baleen whale that has been weaned (which is the implication of the Japanese claim that the larger whale was not lactating) does not need a parent or other members of the pod to supply it with food.

Is it a hunt though? Purely as a matter of scientific methodology, I’m pretty sure that there isn’t anything untoward in principle about killing whales to study them. Very large, migrant marine animals are very difficult to study. You cannot catch, measure, tag and release them like field mice, or even elephants, then hope to keep track of them over time. You cannot collect their droppings and remains for analysis. Is it necessary to take 850+/-50 minke whales annually for the surveys? I’ll leave that to scientists to argue over, but it does seem to be a very large number, unless the authorities want to test the ecological sustainability of such a catch. But again, that’s not where the issue is being debated. This frustrates the Japanese authorities involved in whaling, and annoys many Japanese who could care less about having whale meat available commercially.

As a food source, I suspect that whale meat would not have much effect on the global market for meat under current conditions. But that in itself is no reason to forego harvesting whales in a sustainable manner. In fact, given the market and environmental pressures both direct and indirect (mainly affluence in the emerging economies, rising demand for renewable energy sources) on other sources of animal protein, it probably makes sense to explore the possibility. After all, it was a significant source of nutrition in post-WW II Japan. (In making such considerations, though, it is important to remember that the whales are part of the public commons.)

With regard to the financing of the operations, I understand that the ICR finances its operations through the sale of the whale meat, helped by interest-free loans from a government-controlled entity. Obstruction by Sea Shepherd has made it more expensive to operate, though. Seriously, I advise them not to call on Japanese ports, lest the ship be attached to be auctioned to compensate economic damages. Last year’s fire on the mother ship didn’t help either. Beyond that, much of the relevant information with regard to your questions should available online if you can read Japanese and look hard enough. Why don’t you go over this with your Japanese lessons?

As for your suspicions that “it is a stand by Japanese businessmen and politicians who do not want to lose face”, I’m pretty sure that you are wrong there. In fact, I assume that most Japanese business would happily see the end of the ICR; it’s certainly not good for business. secretly wish that the whole thing would go away. But that is beside the point. Try this thought experiment. If animal activists and Anglo-Saxon governments stopped putting pressure on Japan, would the ICR activities stop? If the answer is no, then whether or not there is an element of “face” to the Japanese government’s position is immaterial.

There is no way that it can be a diversionary tactic, to “distract international attention from all the other fisheries that Japan is helping to deplete.” Japan, unfortunately, is not alone in the failure to properly manage the oceanic fish stock. We do not need diversions; besides, blaming whales (it is true that we do actually harvest krill commercially, so it is not an irrelevant issue) actually attracts attention to the greater issue.

Sophie said...

The Japanese authorities must cling to the 'scientific research' argument as this is the only way they can go on whaling. The only other allowed way would be a limited coastal fishery (about 175 whales a year for the Inuit, but as you will sea below, the coastal whale population of Japan is endangered and might not be subjected to quotas).
All other forms are banned by the IWC.

Japan could have objected the moratorium and undergo US sanctions, but to accept being bound by the moratorium in 1987, escape the sanctions, and then start the 'scientific' program is, well, an easy way out.

As for the calf being weaned, during the 2006-2007 season, out of the 505 Minke whales taken, 262 were pregnant females. As the fishers say they know if a female is lactating before killing it, they certainly know too if it is pregnant or not, at least in advanced stages. They know whales so well it is a wonder they need to research them more.

I can't think of an example of scientific research on mammals where scientists have to kill 1000 animals a year to perform their research.
'unless the authorities want to test the ecological sustainability of such a catch' is very well put, it is the kind of scientific experiment we did very successfully on Mauritius with the dodo.

The scientific work produced by the whaling operations is considered very poor, and often not related to population management (which is the one considered of interest by the IWC). Out of the 150 papers produced, only one was published after peer-review. (

Sea animal tracking has made many progresses. Check the Wikipedia article (, recently there was a 'follow the migrating leatherback turtles' contest, one contestant has established a record of 12,000 miles, being tracked for 647 days (
Very small species of birds can be tracked, diving penguins, sea elephants diving at 1600m, even tiny tree frogs...
Some species of whales (humpback) and shark (basking shark, whale shark) can be identified visually, there are international databases and automated picture matching software to add your observations to the tracking databases. There are posters all around Brittany harbours telling how to report a basking shark and how to take helpful pictures. I've seen divers go along a basking shark with a decameter to measure it.
For marine mammals like whales, non-lethal sampling devices have been developed, allowing to take a DNA sample from a passing animal and let it swim by.
This procedure is well described in the very interesting book 'Tears of the cheetah', from Stephen J. O'Brien, in the section about Scott Baker. This guy also sampled extensively the markets like Tsukiji in Japan, finding many interesting things : between 93 and 2000, 10% of the meat sold as whale meat came from prohibited species. One third of the minke whales came from the sea of Japan population, which is supposed to be totally protected from harvesting because of its depletion.

As for 'not being opposed to hunting', well, I consider both land and sea hunt to be things of the past, unsustainable and best abandoned, as 7 billion humans can't live on the planet as hunter-gatherers. We can either cut our numbers drastically and go back to hunting-gathering, or rely on agriculture and some aquaculture to feed ourselves (aquaculture of fish is not working yet in most cases, depending on outside catches of either young or prey to work, we still have to work on that to make it sustainable).
I do not like the first option.
Most of the hunters and fishermen around my place are at war against their environment, take all they can without thinking of the future, and are ignorant of the species they kill (think mistaking a heron for a duck, or a seabass school for a sardine school). They are very good at claiming tradition while using very modern, efficient and thorough killing techniques.
As suggested by the DNA sampling above and, for example, tuna fisheries in the mediterranean, official quotas might look sustainable (in the case of bluefin tuna they don't, but maybe they do in the case of Minke whales), but there is also fishing over-quota and plainly illegal fishing going on.
The estimate of Minke whales population used by the Japanese as current, 750,000, dates from the early 90s, but the current survey figures point at a 340,000 population. Wether is is due to over-estimate in the previous count or population decrease is not clear. Any quota taken from the first figure, supplemented with illegal fishing, can lead to very divergent outcomes.

My Japanese is not good enough, maybe one day it will allow me to check for the information you refer to. I will use it as a study goal.

The kangaroo killed in Australia are culled, and population numbers have increased from 21 million to 50 million since a hunting quota was established. Of course there are threatened kangaroo species, not hunted (even actively protected), and thriving ones, which are part of the quota. I'm not sure one specie of whales can be labelled as "thriving" compared to pre-whaling populations.

Part of the story is about posturing, why would a hunt of humpbacks have been advertised if not as a way to make people fight for humpbacks and let fin and Minke whales be taken once the humpback case had been 'won' by the environmentalists ? Or is it just ignorance of the importance and conservancy status of humpbacks ?

Filter-feeder whales like fin whales do not only eat krill, but also schools of small fish and crustaceans, they might be considered a competitor.

Jun Okumura said...


Thank you for the links. You are now taking up the scientific arguments, which are constructive. If that were all that was going on in the public debate on this issue, I would leave the matter to the experts. But that is not the case.

Let me address some of your points. I hope that they will be of use to you when you pursue the matter on other fronts.

First, the requirement for information differs from field to field, science to science, survey to survey. An electronic tracking device is exactly what you need when you want to conduct a sea turtle race. Identification of individual whales is most useful for a animal behavioral scientist. Opponents of the ICR must take it on over the science and the appropriateness of the means that it uses. As a corollary, though, they must accept the principle that scientifically verified sustainable commercial whaling can be resumed. And that is something that they will never do.

Second, Scott Baker is not making the claim that one-tenth of the Japanese catch is illegal. He is merely stating saying one-tenth of the meat being sold from the catch of the protected whales (including the humpback) in his view belong to the more endangered species among them. He didn’t have to go to the meat market to guess as much, though. He only had to look at the Japan Whaling Association website ( - unfortunately, the website is down today) to figure that out from the table there.

Third, I am still very skeptical that humpback whales are part of a diversionary tactic. The ICR is already taking 50 specimens from several other species, a couple with smaller estimated populations than the humpback whale, in the North-west Pacific Ocean. (The Japan Whaling Association table ( gives a 400 - not 700 - thousand plus figure for the South-Pacific minke whale population.) So, it was not surprising to me that it decided to move on to the humpback whale as well when its population recovered. (Let’s not quibble about the meaning of “recover”, since that’s immaterial to the discussion of this particular point.) However, this raises a different question for the ICR: namely, why does it need 850+/-50 minke whales to conduct research, if it can make do with 50 humpbacks, as well as similarly small numbers of specimens for other whales? That is why I’m saying that “it does seem to be a very large number, unless the authorities want to test the ecological sustainability of such a catch.” And then, is such a test really science? Now that’s a much better line of attack if people want to move public opinion in Japan than using half-truths and even lies, as well as illegal and sometimes dangerous acts. Unless, of course, they are convinced of their absolute, unambiguous righteousness and believe that anything is justified in stopping the ICR from taking whales. If eco-terrorism is too strong a word, call them cetaceo-fundamentalists.

Finally, with regard to the quality of the ICR science, I have no idea whatsoever. I will not, however, uncritically accept the claims of either side of the argument, be they the opponents of whaling, or the ICR itself. Not being a scientist, I’ll leave it at that.

Sophie said...

Scott Baker is not making the claim that one-tenth of the Japanese catch *was* illegal between 93 and 00. He states that one-tenth of the catch was from protected species (the Japanese said then that they were not taking humpback, but some was on the market).

One third of the Minke whales catch was illegal, as being taken from the population of the sea of Japan, which was supposed to be totally protected because of its acute depletion.
Sub-populations can be highly endangered while the whole species is not.

Jun Okumura said...


Sorry. I was referring to your comment, where you said that the 10% came from “prohibited”, not “illegal”, species. Mr. Baker uses the word “protected”. In any case, my point is that all the species that he covers, and not just those that account for the 10%, are “protected”, “illegal”, “prohibited” or whatever your choice of words. His distinction is based on his evaluation of the scarcity of each species.

I didn’t touch on the minke whale’s Japan Sea subpopulation in my comment, but it’s certainly something that should be followed up in the full debate. It does raise the raise the question: How did that happen? Is the ICR at fault, or is it a statistical anomaly? If it’s the former, then maybe it’s a matter of avoiding certain waters where the Japan Sea population migrates through. But that’s the kind of argument that absolutists, who do not want whales to be killed, period, will want to avoid. But could it be the latter? It may just be that the meat from a couple of the whales in question had gone on the market when he went around and took the samples. After all, you can’t expect the meat from the entire annual catch to have been mixed randomly before they had been stocked. Now I’m not saying that that’s what happened. My point is that these are obvious questions to be asked before his figures can be evaluated and acted upon. Given the politically and emotionally charged nature of the issue, he, as well as the ICR, should be prepared to respond to these questions in a manner satisfactory to third-party scientists and understandable to the mainstream media.

Sophie said...

The Minke whale’s Japan sea subpopulation issue raises another thought. This subpopulation conservation status shows that it has been overfished and mismanaged. It means that all the countries involved (Japan, Koreas, Russia, China and maybe others) have not displayed the ability to manage a stock in a sustainable manner.
This is the case in most fisheries, but I have an example of fishery managed in a sustainable manner here (the Channel scallops fishery north of Normandy), and I'm sure you can find examples in Japan.

Can we give the right to fishermen who have not been able to manage a fishery in a sustainable manner the opportunity to save themselves by fishing in another area (repeating the same mistakes)? To me, they have not passed the test, and should only be allowed to fish elsewhere once they have re-established the population they depleted by conservancy measures.
Same goes for European cod fishers who should be put out of a job until North Sea and Newfoundland stocks bounce up (not much hope in the second case). And many other (the vast majority) of European fisheries.

Jun Okumura said...


Oceanic fish resources are poorly managed, that's for sure. By the time we tighten the rules, the population has been diminished, sometimes beyond recovery. It's the tragedy of the commons writ large. There should be many ways to incentivize fishermen to behave sensibly, and certainly taking away their fishing rights must be one element of the enforcement mechanism. It is the installment of an effective regime in a timely manner that is the trick.

Scallops are easy to manage as a resource. They are sedentary creatures that live in territorial waters. This gives fishermen an incentive to manage the resource properly and also makes it easy for the authorities to put an effective enforcement mechanism in place. Here, the global commons dilemma comes into play only indirectly, in the form of oceanic pollution.

It's hard to comment with any confidence on the Japan Sea minke whales without knowing the historical trendline of the Japan Sea subpopulation, but it certain warrants more protection even if one does not agree with the absolutists. But that's part of a debate that the two sides are not properly engaging in.