Week of March 31st: A win for the whales! Plus, a few notes on deep diving and a newly discovered ancient whale species

By Lauren Campbell, Conservation Manager

By far the BIGGEST marine conservation story of the week deals with the recent International Court of Justice ruling against Japan's so-called "reserach" whaling.  

Take a moment to jump up and down, fist pump, dance a jig - this ruling is HUGE!!

On Monday, March 31, 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s “scientific whaling” program in the Antarctic Ocean violates the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.  The Court ordered Japan to immediately cease its scientific whaling program.

By the mid-1900’s, the precipitous decline in whale populations around the world prompted an international moratorium on commercial whaling that went into effect in 1986.  Under the moratorium, whaling was legal only under a scientific research permit or with an aboriginal/subsistence whaling permit.  Despite the moratorium, nearly 50,000 whales have been slaughtered in the past 27 years.  Whaling under scientific permit has been responsible for over 15,000 of those deaths, and Japan’s scientific program in particular accounts for an estimated 75% of the whales taken under scientific permit.

In 2010, Australia filed suit against Japan’s scientific whaling program based in the Antarctic Ocean.  The Antarctic Ocean hunt targets minke whales, the second smallest whale species.  Australia claimed that Japan was using scientific whaling to conceal its commercial whaling operations.  In a 12-4 vote, the International Court of Justice sided with Australia’s claim, noting that since 2005, Japan’s “research” program has produced only two peer reviewed scientific papers. 

Rulings by the International Court of Justice are binding and cannot be repealed.  Japan has, furthermore, publicly announced that it would abide by the ruling.

Since the “save the whales” movement first gained notable traction in the 1970’s, environmentalists, scientists and concerned citizens alike have rallied against the needless killing of whales.  The Court’s ruling thus represents an important milestone in the fight to protect whale populations worldwide, and is the first time that an international court has ruled some of Japan’s whaling operations to be illegal and in violation of the commercial whaling moratorium.

While Pacific Whale Foundation celebrates the ruling, a few caveats should be noted:

1.     The ruling only applies to Japan’s whaling program in the Antarctic Ocean.  In addition to the Antarctic, Japan conducts “scientific” whale hunts the North Pacific and commercial whaling in its territorial waters. The ruling also does not apply to small cetaceans and does not address the issue of Japan’s dolphin drives.

2.     The door is left open for Japan to launch a new scientific hunt in the Antarctic.  If Japan can develop a program that meets the demands of a legitimate scientific study or provide basis for its catch quotas, there is the possibility that Antarctic hunts could resume.  However any hunts by Japan in the Antarctic will face intense scrutiny. 

3.     Iceland and Norway continue to hunt whales.  Iceland and Norway both defy the moratorium on commercial whaling and continue to hunt minke whales commercially.  Iceland also hunts fin whales commercially.  On average, Norway kills an estimated 500 minke whales in the North Atlantic each year, while Iceland takes about 100 fin whales and 50 minke whales.

4.     Whaling is not the biggest threat to whales.  Ocean pollution, underwater noise, ship strikes, climate change, oil spills, entanglement and changes in prey populations are just a few of the many threats that whales face.  Whaling, however, is currently the most visible and well-known threat, and the Court ruling thus represents a major PR victory for the ocean conservation community. 

Despite these caveats, the recent ruling proves that victories are possible!  Stay up-to-date with Pacific Whale Foundation's efforts to save whales by bookmarking our STOP Whaling page!

In additional, awesome ocean news, not only has commercial whaling been dealt a serious blow, but scientists are continuing to make incredible discoveries about whale and dolphin species. 

Cascadia Research Institute's Erin Falcone recently published an article describing the diving strategies of Cuvier's beaked whale, an illusive species of beaked whale that is found throughout both tropical and temperate seas.  Using satellite-linked tags, scientists tracked eight individual Cuvier's and amassed nearly 4,000 hours worth of dive data.  The data included dives of up to 2,992 meters (~1.85 MILES) in depth for a total of 2 hours and 17 minutes - both of which are new mammalian dive records.  Previous records for mammalian dive time and depths were held by the Southern Elephant Seal.

Not to be outdone, another group of scientists has uncovered fossils of a species of whales that thrived in the Pacific nearly 3 million years ago.  It is theorized that the species is a distant ancestor of today's minke and fin whales, and a relative of blue and humpback whales.  The fossils were discovered off the coast of Santa Cruz, California, but their location remains underwraps.  Needless to say, the discovery provides important information about the evolution and ecology of marine communities.  The unique makeup of the fossils found at the site also suggest that the North Pacific marine mammal community underwent widespread changes in the last 1-2 million years.       


"Without water, our planet would be one of the billion of lifeless rocks floating endlessly in the vastness of the inky-black void." ~ Fabien Cousteau