The Antarctic Sanctuary: Japanese Whaling under the Guise of Science

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (“IWC”) instituted a moratorium on all commercial whaling. This measure was taken in order to protect whale species, such as the humpback, from extinction. The wording of the moratorium decision allowed an exception to the ban in situations where the whaling was for scientific purposes.

Then, in 1994, the IWC declared a sanctuary in Antarctica that would permanently ban commercial whaling in the area even if the moratorium is ever lifted. This provision also provides an exception for scientific research. Japan capitalized on the exception, and between 2005 and 2006, the Japanese killed 2,113 whales in the name of scientific research. The meat was then sold throughout the country, used in school lunches and mixed into pet food. Japan has failed to produce any substantial scientific data from twenty-two years of research.

The sanctuary limits the whaling of minke whales to 300 per year. It is nearly impossible to tell whether Japan has exceeded its limit, but has continued to take advantage of the whaling for allegedly scientific purposes in the Antarctic. Japan continues to issue itself permits, and the statistical data compiled for the IWC is accepted in good faith, though there are probably illegal whaling vessels still slaughtering minkes.

Should the exception for whaling for scientific purposes be revoked?  After 25 years of whaling for scientific purposes, can more scientific knowledge still be gained?



  1. I think the exception for whaling for scientific purposes should be revoked. It seems to me that Japanese fishermen are not so concerned with science, but with how much whale meat they can sell. Greenpeace mentions several non-lethal methods for obtaining the same data on whales that the Japanese fishermen claim to be collecting. Australia, for example, takes small pieces of whale skin for biopsies, analyses whale feces to determine what they eat, and tags whales with tracking devices to monitor their movements, all while the animals are alive. None of these methods harm the animals, and the information obtained is the same as that which the Japanese fishing industry claims to be obtaining by killing the whales. Additionally, evidence suggests that Japanese fishermen kill far more whales than are necessary for obtaining scientific data. Since the same data can be obtained from a live whale as from a dead whale, it seems obvious that the exception to whaling for scientific purposes should be revoked.

    Source: Greenpeace, The Truth Behind ‘Scientific Whaling,’ available at

  2. Undoubtedly, Japan is abusing the scientific exception and engaging in commercial whaling. Whaling has long been central to Japanese trade and culture. Thus, efforts to slow the activity have been futile. But is the proper solution eliminating the scientific exception? In the end, it would be foolish to presume that the scientific exception should be eliminated because of Japan’s whaling violation. By that logic, many criminal statutes should be eliminated because they are still broken. What is needed is a system of sanctions with bite to stop Japan from abusing the scientific exception. For example, maybe trading partners could threaten to impose a surcharge on Japanese imports. Also, at least the global community can use the pressure of the United Nations to embarrass Japan through resolutions harshly condemning the activity. In the end, what is needed is enforcement, not elimination of the rule.

  3. If whale populations have been shrinking, then hunting should be stopped regardless of whether it occurs for consumption or scientific purposes. If, however, whale populations have sustained their numbers in spite of hunting, then the West should not be able to tell Japan what to do. Japan is an island nation that for centuries had depended on fishing to feed its people. As long as the country’s fishing practices don’t threaten the continued viability of any species, they should be allowed to continue. In the same regard, our taste for chicken should not be curtailed unless it can be shown that chickens face an existential threat. Just because Westerners don’t enjoy whale meat is not reason enough to end whaling; a rapidly shrinking global population of whales is, however. The answer, therefore, lies in the statistics.

  4. I certainly don’t think we have reached the limit of what we can learn from the scientific study of whales. But the question is really this: do we have to kill in the name of science, or are there alternative and equally effective methods of gathering the same data? A College of the Atlantic project called “Years of the North Atlantic Humpback,” for instance, utilized visual identification and biopsies to map migration patterns, and collect data on age, diet, reproductive status, etc. But, what if we want to know something more specific about a whale’s diet; that is, not simply whether a whale has eaten fish or krill, but what type of fish? My quick research on the effectiveness of non-lethal methods like biopsies have turned up studies that come out on both sides.

    Either way, the more important issue (at least in my opinion) is whether Japan engages in commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research, and if so, what can be done about it?

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