Scientific Whaling Programs

A research paper from my undergrad degree at the University of British Columbia.

Conservation Concerns & Welfare Issues


            Scientific whaling, also known as special permit whaling, is a prominent industry in which researchers have the legal right to kill, take, and treat whales for scientific research. Whaling itself was once a major industry, which subsequently led to the decline of many whale populations. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was enacted in an attempt to stabilize the dwindling whale populations and regulate a sustainable whaling industry. Nonetheless, a moratorium on commercial whaling is still in effect today due to a lack of accurate whale population data, and significant public pressure. Commercial whaling continues to occur in a few countries in objection to the IWC. Furthermore, aboriginal subsistence, and special permit whaling continue to legally occur. While aboriginal subsistence whaling involves a limited number of annual takes, special permit whaling includes an annual harvest of sizeable numbers. Special permit whaling is an industry created under the premise of scientific research to further the conservation and protection of cetacean species. Further, these programs aim to determine how sustainable commercial whaling can be conducted if and when the moratorium is lifted. However, there has been lots of international controversy over the validity of the findings that emerge from these lethal whaling programs. The majority of the members of the IWC’s Scientific Committee (SC) agree that scientific whaling has an insufficient scientific basis. Additionally, non-lethal methods of studying cetaceans have been found to produce more reliable findings. Scientific whaling also contributes to a plethora of welfare concerns, including inhumane methods of killing, prolonged times to death, and the incidences of struck and lost whales.


            A history of overexploitation of cetaceans led to the depletion of some whale populations to critical levels. A number of species, including the blue, right, bowhead, and humpback whale, were all overhunted to the point where they have been listed as endangered (Aron et al., 2000; Clapham et al., 2007). Whaling soon became a controversial issue, and in the 1970’s a “save the whale” movement drew international attention to the issue (Parsons et al., 2010). Citizens even threatened to boycott products and services from the whaling nations (Aron et al., 2000). In response, the New Management Procedure (NMP) was adopted in 1974 (Aron et al., 2000). NMP banned the killing of all cetaceans that had previously been over exploited, while still allowing limited commercial whaling of non-threatened species (Aron et al., 2000). However, the NMP was troublesome, as it required scientific data on whale population numbers that proved difficult to obtain. Thus in 1946, in response to the disappearing whale stocks, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was agreed upon and subsequently International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created (Harrop, 2003; Gales et al., 2005). The IWC became the global body responsible for the management of whaling and the sustainable use of whales (Garner, 2011; Gerber et al., 2014; Gales et al., 2005). Nonetheless, the IWC has historically allowed excessive quotas for whaling which perpetuated the reduction of many stocks of great whales (Aron et al., 2000).

            Consequently, a blanket moratorium on commercial whaling was passed and took effect in 1985 (Aron et al., 2000; Gerber et al., 2014; Parsons et al., 2010). The moratorium was originally suppose to last for 10 years while the IWC developed a scientific database and management system to create a sustainable whaling industry (Aron et al., 2000). However, the difficulties in attaining this goal are indicated by the continued existence of the commercial whaling moratorium today. Moreover, many IWC member nations have stated, “that they will not support any reopening of commercial whaling under any conditions” (Aron et al., 2000).

            Yet, despite the moratorium on commercial whaling, whaling has continued to occur to this day. Approximately 800 whales are hunted annually under objection to the IWC, in countries such as Norway and Iceland (Gerber et al., 2014; Holt, 2002). Moreover, subsistence whaling occurs, primarily by indigenous people, in places such as Siberia, Alaska, and Greenland (Parsons et al., 2010). Globally, aboriginal subsistence whaling harvests around 400 whales annually for this cultural practice (Bass & Brakes, 2013). Whaling also occurs in a small number of countries that are not IWC members, and thus, not regulated (Aron et al., 2000). Most significantly, scientific whaling programs continue to hunt staggering numbers of whales each year (Garner, 2011).

            Scientific whaling is the legal capture and killing of whales for scientific purposes (Gales et al., 2005). Scientific whaling has occurred in Norway from 1988 to 1994, in Iceland from 1986 to 1989 and again from 2003 to 2007, and in Korea in 1986 (Côté & Favaro, 2016). Moreover, it has been occurring in Japan since 1987 and their programs are still prevalent today (Côté & Favaro, 2016). As scientific whaling programs frequently result in an overexploitation of whale stocks, while producing very little in the way of viable scientific research, it is commonly viewed as an unnecessary tool for cetacean conservation, especially when non-lethal methods have been found to produce more reliable results. Additionally, there are many welfare concerns associated with the scientific whaling industry, such as inhumane methods of killing, prolonged time to deaths, and the occurrence of struck and lost whales.

Conservation Concerns

            Special permit whaling is done under the guise of conservation research. Proponents claim it is necessary for furthering the conservation and protection of cetacean species by advancing the knowledge of these elusive aquatic animals. Such programs also aim to develop sustainable commercial whaling guidelines in anticipation of the moratorium on commercial whaling being lifted. However, despite the regulations surrounding commercial and aboriginal whaling, the objectives of scientific whaling programs are determined unilaterally by the whaling nation (Gales et al., 2005). Thus, an overabundance of whales is harvested annually in Japan, and very little viable research has resulted (Gales et al., 2005). Scientific whaling programs contribute to the overexploitation of whales, threatening the species, as population numbers are largely unknown. The majority of cetacean species are listed as ‘data deficient’, illustrating the fact that there is currently not enough data to support a sustainable harvest (Parsons et al., 2010). Furthermore, scientific whaling programs do not fulfill their objective of contributing to cetacean conservation and the scientific field, as the results of these studies are highly contentious (Bass & Brakes, 2013; Côté & Favaro, 2016; Clapham et al., 2003; Gales et al., 2005). Japan claims their scientific whaling programs are to understand whale populations and ecosystem dynamics (Morell, 2014). Despite this, non-whaling nations have proved non-lethal methods of studying whales produces more reliable results, and thus, scientific whaling at Japan’s scale is unnecessary (Côté & Favaro, 2016).

i. Overexploitation of Whales           

            Whaling has historically led to the depletion of many whale stocks. Yet, despite mounting evidence of declining whale populations, and the ban on commercial whaling, whales continued to be exploited by whaling nations such as Japan, Norway, and Iceland. As illustrated in Figure 1., whaling has more than doubled since the 1990s, with the majority of whales caught by Japan’s scientific whaling programs (Costello et al., 2012). Thus, many whale populations remain severely depleted and at risk of extinction. As of 2008, nearly a quarter of all whale species have been listed as ‘threatened’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) “Red List” (Parsons et al., 2010). Moreover, nine are listed as ‘endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’ (Parsons et al., 2010).

Figure 1. The increasing number of whales killed by whaling programs from 1988 to 2009, the majority from Japan’s ‘scientific whaling’ programs (Bass & Brakes, 2013).

            Japan’s scientific whaling programs kill a substantial amount of whales comparable to commercial whaling programs (Gales et al., 2005). As of 2006, Japan has harvested 8,973 minke whales, 293 Bryde’s whales, 240 sei whales, 43 sperm whales, and 10 fin whales since 1987 for ‘scientific purposes’ (Clapham et al., 2007). This is a total of 9,559 animals killed, compared to only 2,100 whales harvested for all other whaling nations (Iceland, Norway, and Korea) combined over the same period of time (Clapham et al., 2007). The large scale of Japan’s scientific whaling programs is of concern due to the lack of scientific data that comes from these programs. Moreover, it is important to note that prior to the moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan conducted very little scientific research that involved harvesting whales, killing only 840 whales over a 32-year period (Clapham et al., 2007). Thus, Japan’s scientific whaling programs have been considered to simply be “a front for the continued exploitation of whale stocks while the moratorium on commercial whaling remains in place” (Clapham et al., 2007). The whales harvested for ‘scientific reasons’ are sold on the commercial market as meat (Gales et al., 2005). This produces annual revenues of an estimated US$50 million (Gales et al., 2005). The dependence on these revenues may be the driving force behind the large number of whales harvested while leaving the scientific objectives unanswered. 

            That being said, Japan’s whaling programs do focus mainly on harvesting minke whales, as this species is abundant and populations do not appear to be threatened. A survey done in the 1990’s estimated there were 760,000 Antarctic minke whales (Clapham et al., 2007). However, this number is highly uncertain and controversial. In 2006, population estimates found only 268,000 minke whales, significantly lower than its previous estimation (Clapham et al., 2007). The huge difference between these estimates suggests either a substantial decline in minke whale populations, or the failure of survey techniques to provide reliable estimates of whale populations. Both explanations would be problematic to their conservation.

            Not only are scientific whaling programs harvesting an overabundance of whales, but also the types of whales they are killing and where they are killing them are also troublesome. Sperm and Bryde’s whales are considered rare species. Both are listed as endangered, and thus, should not be harvested (Harrop, 2003). Yet, Japan continues to harvest these whales (Harrop, 2003). Furthermore, humpback and fin whales are internationally listed as vulnerable and endangered, and have been protected from commercial whaling since 1966 and 1985 respectively (Gales et al., 2005). Yet, Japan continues to harvest these whales, as they believe they are exempt from the rules outlined by the IWC as their programs are for scientific reasons. Japan has also been caught conducting scientific programs within sanctuary waters. These are areas that are protected from commercial whaling for the sole purpose of conducting research on whale populations untouched by the whaling industry (Gales et al., 2005; Nagtzaam, 2009). Sanctuaries are critical for the conservation of whale species: they allow breeding and other natural behaviours to occur without human interference (Nagtzaam, 2009). Yet, the lack of regulation for scientific whaling programs, despite the outcries from IWC members, seems to allow such contentious practices.

ii. Insufficient Scientific Basis

            Scientific research on cetaceans is important work. It contributes to our overall knowledge of these aquatic animals and to the development of conservation management techniques. However, the lethal sampling methods of scientific whaling programs are extremely controversial. The majority of the members of the Scientific Committee (SC) within the IWC themselves argue that so called ‘scientific whaling’ programs have an insufficient scientific basis (Gales et al., 2005). They believe that there are much better techniques, which do not involve the deaths of the whales, to obtain the same data.

            Japan currently has whaling programs in both the North Pacific Ocean and in the Southern Ocean (Iliff, 2008). Their scientific whaling program in the North Pacific (JARPA II) includes annual catches of over 250 whales and aims to determine the relationship between whales, their prey, and the ecosystem (Clapham et al., 2003; Corkeron, 2009; Morell, 2014). However, there have been a plethora of research studies conducted using non-lethal sampling to answer this same research question (e.g.: Stevick et al., 2008; Doniol-Valcroze et al., 2008; Friedlaender et al., 2006; Croll et al., 2005; et cetera). Furthermore, the stomach sampling technique utilized in Japan’s whaling program is unnecessary; it is very uncommon in any other research program internationally (Corkeron, 2009). In response to Japan’s controversial scientific whaling programs, the International Court of Justice ordered a stop to JARPA II, stating that the killings were not “for purposes of scientific research” (Morell, 2014). Nonetheless, Japan’s other whaling programs continue to operate.

            Japans whaling program in the Southern Ocean/Antarctic (JARPA) has killed 5,900 minke whales over the last 16 years (Clapham et al., 2003). They claim these whales are caught and killed for the purposes of studying feeding ecology, environmental pollutants, and stock structure (Clapham et al., 2003). However, Japans scientific whaling program has only led to a very few number of peer-reviewed papers, with none being published by the IWC’s own journal (Gales et al., 2005).

iii. Higher Quality Research from Non-Lethal Methods

            Cetacean research can be addressed more effectively, and inexpensively, using non-lethal methods (Clapham et al., 2007; Gales et al., 2005). More than half of the members of the IWC’s SC agree that Japan’s lethal methods of research are unwarranted (Clapham et al., 2007; Nagtzaam, 2009). The failure of Japan’s research to be published in international referred journals reflects the low quality of its science (Clapham et al., 2007).

            The quality of science produced from Japan’s lethal scientific whaling programs is non-comparable to the reliable science coming from non-whaling nations. As you can see in Figure 2., the United States produces the majority of peer-reviewed published papers with data obtained by non-lethal methods (Côté & Favaro,2016). Not only does the majority of research emanate from non-whaling nations, but the quality of research differs significantly as well. While only 33% of papers by whaling nations are peer-reviewed, 69% of the papers produced by non-whaling nations are peer-reviewed (Côté & Favaro, 2016). Moreover, publications from the non-whaling nations are cited four times more than those from whaling countries (Côté & Favaro, 2016). These academic criteria suggest that the quality of science produced by whaling nations is inadequate compared to the science from the non-whaling nations (Côté & Favaro,2016; Corkeron, 2009). Non-lethal methods of studying cetaceans are more reliable as they produce more definitive information (Corkeron, 2009).

Figure 2. Number of scientific papers published (1986-2013) by whaling nations (grey bars) and non-whaling nations (black bars) on subjects related to IWC goals (filled) and subjects related to conservation and ecology but unrelated to permit goals (open) (Côté & Favaro, 2016).

Animal Welfare Issues

            There is a significant lack of regulations within the IWC to protect the welfare of the whales. Furthermore, scientific whaling does not fall under the IWC regulations, and thus, many animal welfare issues result (Clapham et al., 2003). Moreover, the IWC’s ability to monitor hunts for potential welfare concerns is denied due to the lack of data provided by whaling nations (Bass & Brakes, 2013; Gales et al., 2008). Welfare concerns include inhumane methods of killing, prolonged times to death, and incidences of struck and lost whales.

iv. Inhumane Killing Methods

            There are no whale killing techniques that can be classified as truly humane. Whale hunts start off with often-lengthy pursuits causing great stress and exhaustion to the whale (Bass & Brakes, 2013). When the whale is finally within shooting distance, a shooter takes aim. The primary killing method in scientific whaling programs is by exploding grenade harpoons (Bass & Brakes, 2013; Kestin, 2001). The accuracy of the harpoon is often compromised by the nature of the ocean environment, namely large waves and unpredictable weather (Bass & Brakes, 2013). Once the whale is caught with the harpoon, it is winched into the ship (Gales et al., 2008). The aim is to instantaneously render the animal dead, however, frequently this does not happen and secondary methods of killing must be used. The secondary killing methods include using rifles, electric lances, or additional harpoons (Bass & Brakes, 2013; Kestin, 2001; Gales et al., 2008). However, asphyxiation is also regularly used as a secondary killing method in Japan’s scientific whaling programs, contributing to obvious welfare issues (Gales et al., 2008).  

            This killing technique often leads to prolonged times to deaths that would not be tolerated in other industries such as commercial animal agriculture. In slaughterhouses, the death of animals is highly regulated, and killing methods would require an instantaneous death (Gales et al., 2008; Harrop, 2003). Furthermore, there are very strict regulations for the slaughter/euthanasia of research animals regulated by Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (Swanson, 2002). The slaughter of whales is contrary to the standards of animal care present in research studies utilizing animals. Japan itself has mandated standards for the humane slaughter of animals for human consumption, yet these standards clearly do not translate to their scientific whaling programs (Garner, 2011). The death of a whale, even by the most humane methods falls short of all animal welfare standards.  

v. Prolonged Time to Deaths

            One of the major issues associated with determining the most humane methods of killing whales, is the apparent lack of methods to determine when exactly a whale is dead. The current IWC criteria used to assess death in whales are: “relaxation of the lower jaw; or no flipper movement; or sinking without active movement” (Bass & Brakes, 2013). Whales will often die as a result of asphyxiation and not from the impact of the harpoon, as whalers may believe the animal is dead long before it actually is (Gales et al., 2008). Due to physiological adaptations of being completely aquatic mammals, the mere cessation of movement has been criticized as inadequate criteria in terms of assessing suffering (Clapham et al., 2007; Harrop, 2003; Kestin, 2001; Bass & Brakes, 2013).

            One study observing the deaths of 16 Antarctic minke whales by Japan’s Antarctic scientific whaling program, found that fewer than one in five whales were killed instantaneously (Gales et al., 2008). In fact, the average time to death was 10 minutes, with two whales even surviving longer than 25 minutes after being struck with a harpoon (Gales et al., 2008). It is estimated that 70% of whales killed in Japanese operations survive the initial shot (Kestin, 2001). A once routine practice of collecting data on whale kills stopped in 2007, as whaling nations believed this data would only be used to criticize whaling techniques (Gales et al., 2008). Thus, data on whale killings is greatly unavailable.

vi. Struck & Lost Whales

            As a result of the inadequate methods of killing, some whales are struck with a harpoon but subsequently lost (Carroll et al., 2014). This raises serious welfare concerns, as this animal may incur a wide range of injuries from severe nervous tissue damage or internal organ damage. These injuries could lead to prolonged death, infection, and restricted mobility. However, not all whales die as a result of being struck, evident by whales live caught with harpoon injuries (Carroll et al., 2014; Reeves & Smith, 2010). Nonetheless, there are far too many accounts of struck and lost whales. One account describes how two out of three whales struck with bomb-lances were lost as the bombs failed to explode (Reeves & Smith, 2010). Another details how ten out of twenty-two whales killed were lost (Reeves & Smith, 2010).

            The number of struck and lost whales is required under the IWC Schedule (Carroll et al., 2014; Gales et al., 2008). However, Japan doesn’t provide any such data as their whaling is under a scientific permit, and thus they believe this requirement doesn’t apply to them (Gales et al., 2008). According to estimates from Carroll et al. (2014), when factoring in stuck and lost whales, the actual numbers of whales killed more than doubles. Accordingly, there is a significant lack of data pertaining to whale harvests for scientific purposes. Whaling nations are under the impression that by providing whaling data they would be supplying ammunition to the anti-whaling campaign (Gales et al., 2008). This just indicates that they themselves know the current whaling practices are inhumane.

Attaining Conservation & Welfare Goals

ReplacementAlternative, non-lethal methods can be used to answer research objectives. If no alternative is possible, justification must be provided for why harvesting is needed and why alternative methods are inappropriate.
ReductionThe significant number of whales killed has been repeatedly questioned, thus, an independent committee must approve the number of animals proposed for harvest.
RefinementCurrent killing methods are inadequate as they are inhumane and often lead to prolonged times-to-death. Researchers must look for alternative methods to reduce pain and suffering.
Table 1. The 3Rs with respect to Scientific Whaling Programs

            Studying cetaceans is important for furthering our knowledge on this elusive species and to improve our conservation efforts. Nevertheless, the welfare of these animals must also be considered. It would therefore be beneficial to implement the three R’s of ethical animal science: replacement, reduction, and refinement (Jones, 2013). As outlined in Table 1., we can accomplish all three R’s, by utilizing alternative non-lethal research techniques, reducing the total number of whales harvested, and modifying the currently inhumane methods of killing whales.

            Use of non-lethal research methods would attain the conservation goals of research as well as largely improve the welfare of the animals. It has been shown that studies utilizing non-lethal methods produce much greater and more reliable data that can be applied to the conservation of this cetacean species. Moreover, the use of non-lethal techniques such as photo-identification, whale surveys, non-lethal skin biopsies, et cetera, would reduce or completely obliterate the animal welfare concerns (Clapham et al., 2003; Gales et al., 2005; Corkeron, 2009).

            Japan’s scientific whaling programs’ procedures and harvest numbers are determined solely by the whaling nation themself (Gales et al., 2005). Japan continues to harvest a significant number of whales that has been repeatedly questioned (eg: Gales et al., 2005; Clapham et al., 2007; Morell, 2014). Although they must submit their research proposals to the IWC, the IWC has no say in whether the program goes forward or not, nor whether any changes must be made to the research procedures (Gales et al., 2005). An independent approval process should be initiated in order to review the efficacy and necessity of these programs. Furthermore, approval from the SC should be necessary prior to the start of any scientific whaling program.

            Modifying current whale killing procedures is the most difficult goal to accomplish. Causing death without inflicting pain or suffering is near impossible due to the aquatic environment and the physiological adaptations of cetaceans. It should therefore be necessary to first look at alternative non-lethal techniques to obtaining the research objectives. If no alternative is viable, reasons must be given for why lethal methods are appropriate, and only the minimum number of whales required to obtain viable data should be taken.  


            Whales are being harvested under false pretenses. Japan’s scientific whaling program is simply a guise for commercial whaling. This is evident due to the sharp increase in scientific whaling programs implemented directly after a ban on commercial whaling, and further, due to the economic gain Japan benefits from the annual whale harvests. Additionally, very little reliable data is obtained from the lethal research methods utilized in Japan’s scientific whaling programs, while more reliable research has been obtained by non-lethal methods of cetacean research. Furthermore, the method of capturing and killing these whales is inhumane. It often leads to prolonged times to death and the occurrences of struck and lost whales. In order to preserve these species and improve conservation efforts, more efficient methods of cetacean research must be employed that also takes into account the animal’s welfare.


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