Scientific permit whaling

The rules of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) allow for "special permit whaling", commonly referred to as "scientific whaling", provided it is "for the purpose of scientific research". Scientific whaling is not under the control of the IWC - permits and quotas are at the total discretion of each nation.
As of March 2014 more than 16,000 fin, sperm, sei, Bryde's and minke whales had been killed using scientific permits since the moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1986.
There is heated debate in the IWC about the exploitation of this loophole as the governments of Japan and Iceland continue to issue their whaling fleets with scientific permits to kill whales, all of which are processed for their domestic whale meat markets.
The fishing industries are very influential in both Japan and Iceland and continue to lobby their governments to sustain and support whaling. Japan's whaling in particular receives substantial Government subsidies.
There is strong criticism of scientific whaling, even within the IWC's Scientific Committee which has called on Japan and Iceland many times to discontinue their lethal research programs.
Proven research alternatives exist, such as using low-powered projectiles to remove very small samples of skin and blubber. Even less invasive is the collection of skin that is being constantly shed by whales. A piece the size of a human finger-nail can reveal the whale's gender, identify the individual, show its relationship to other individuals and contribute to knowledge about population structure and dynamics.
The Australian Antarctic Division has also conducted pioneering work with the collection and analysis of faecal samples.
Japan's scientific whaling program in the western North Pacific (JARPN II) calls for 340 minke, 100 sei, 50 Bryde's and 10 sperm whales each year. In the 2013 whaling season 95 minke, 100 sei, 28 Bryde's and one sperm whale were killed.
JARPA II, Japan's similar program in the Antarctic, called for an annual catch of up to 935 minkes (850 +/-10%) and 50 fin whales. Officially, the program also included taking humpbacks. However, strong opposition from the Australian Government and condemnation by environmental organisations and citizens world-wide caused the Japanese Government, for the first time, to back down on its lethal research intentions. They were also unsuccessful in achieving their self-issued minke and fin quotas in recent years due to "weather conditions and sabotage acts by activists".

Following an historic decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), JARPA II has been terminated. On 31 March 2014, following a successful court case brought against Japan by Australia, the ICJ instructed that Japan's scientific whaling permits for the Antarctic must be revoked and that no further such permits may be issued.

However, Japan soon announced that it was developing a new Antarctic scientific whaling program. Within eight months details were released of the New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean, or NEWREP-A. A review of the program by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission found no justification for the lethal research component. Japan sent its fleet south in December 2015 all the same, intent on killing 333 minke whales that will be "researched" and then processed for the domestic whale meat market.

South Korea
At the 2012 annual meeting of the IWC in July 2012 the Republic of Korea announced it was “considering conducting whaling for scientific research”, claiming that minke whales are depleting fish stocks in their waters and that scientific whaling is needed to understand whale populations and understand their feeding habits. One week later, following international media attention and diplomatic discussions with Australia and other nations, the South Korean government stated that it would take the advice of the IWC on the matter. Following international pressure from governments and environmental groups, South Korea subsequently abandoned its scientific whaling proposal.
Closer scrutiny
At its 2008 meeting, the IWC adopted a new process under which the results from scientific whaling programs will be reviewed, and new proposals evaluated, by a specialist working group. However, the group will only be able to provide reports and make recommendations - all nations will still be able to conduct unlimited scientific whaling under self-issued permits.

Australian initiatives

Also included is funding for the Southern Ocean Research Partnership (SORP) announced at the IWC Annual Meeting in 2008. Participation in the international, multidisciplinary research collaboration is open to all IWC member nations, and the Australian Government has extended a warm invitation to Japan to take part.


Many nations today have laws that enable researchers to occasionally kill a protected species for scientific study and analysis. However, such applications are rarely granted and when they are, they are accompanied by very tight restrictions and conditions imposed by government and by institutional ethics committees, and the take is very small. The scientific permit whaling conducted by Japan and Iceland falls far short of such standards. When the rules of the International Whaling Commission were drawn up more than half a century ago, it is possible that this category of whale killing was included rather innocently, to allow for a very small number of whales to be taken occasionally for genuine scientific research.


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