According to a report just released by the National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Japanese whalers have recently slaughtered 333 minke whales, including more than 200 pregnant females, under the guise of scientific research. Four whaling ships returned to port on Wednesday, after a 115-day expedition to the Antarctic, and their bloody haul was documented by Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research.
The killings were carried out despite a 2014 ruling by the International Court of Justice, which challenged the legitimacy of the country’s claims that their whaling activities are being conducted for scientific purposes. The International Whaling Commission established a commercial whaling moratorium in 1986, but Japan has long used science as an excuse to continue killing the animals.
Dr Leah Gerber, a marine mammal biologist quoted in the SIU report, says that, although there is typically some scientific activity when the whaling ships return to port, such as the collection of organs for research, the majority of the meat ends up on the market, where it’s sold as food. After the 2014 ruling, Japan called a temporary halt to the hunting, but resumed its whaling program—albeit with reduced quotas—in 2015-16.
Astrid Fuchs from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, told the SIU that Japan was specifically targeting juvenile and adult females in order to study the age minke whales reach sexual maturity, and to use that data to try and illustrate the health of the Southern Seas population, so they can push for a relaxation in rules prohibiting regular whale harvesting. Because the hunting happens during the peak of the breeding season, 90 per cent of the female whales killed would have been pregnant—effectively doubling the impact of the hunt.
The recent slaughter is part of a 12-year plan by Japan to kill around 4,000 whales in Antarctic waters, where figures quoted by the International Whaling Commission reveal that the minke population dropped by up to 60% between the 1978–91 period (after hunting began in the 1970s) and the 1991–2004 period. As a result, although Antarctic minke whales (the smallest of the large whales) are not officially considered endangered, the appreciable decline in their numbers has caused serious concern.