Monday, July 11, 2011

Scientific Blubber

The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) starts Monday. Sidney Holt, ASOC's representative to the IWC, has written a series of blog posts to provide context for this meeting and the issue of whaling in the Southern Ocean. This post, the fourth in the series, is also cross-posted on the IFAW blog. Dr. Holt's statement to the IWC is available on the ASOC website,

Let's talk about science again. My Holt Faction friend (see blogs past) Bill de la Mare tells me he has written a paper to the IWC Scientific Committee about something that had been worrying me; I'm all agog to see what the SC does with it.

In 2008 five Japanese scientists from the Tokyo Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) and a Norwegian presented to the IWC Scientific Committee, and subsequently published an analysis of the thickness of the blubber of minke whales killed under scientific permits through the past 18 years in two Areas of the Southern Ocean Antarctic Zone. (It interested me to see that one of them was Dr T. Tamura, who, with Dr Seiji Ohsumi, authored the notoriously awful accounts distributed by the ICR with fake figures of how much fish whales eat.) They claimed that the thickness had been declining at 0.2mm per year. Now this represents the continuation of a fetish set in motion by Ohsumi thirty years ago. I use this word in the formal sense of "an object or idea eliciting unquestioning reverence, respect or devotion". It is the idea that perceived or assumed ecosystem processes can be used to justify unsustainable whaling. The specific idea was the claim that huge numbers of minke whales feasting on krill alongside blue whales were preventing the population of blue whales from recovering even if they were now protected. So, the minkes must be severely culled. The other side of that con was that since the blue, fin and humpback whales had all been nearly exterminated, the minke whales were enjoying big meals, and getting pregnant at a younger age than was natural, so order must be restored by Japanese pelagic whalers cutting them down to size.

We have heard versions of this again and again through the years. It reappeared when Ohsumi and his colleague Tamura produced a series of articles with grossly inflated accounts of how much of 'our' fish the whales are eating. The blubber thickness story is part of an effort to use JARPA to justify minke whaling. So, is this minute reduction of blubber thickness a fact, and if so is it caused by the minke whales increasing and competing with each other, or by the vigorous growth of the populations of the other krill eating whales - or maybe competition from krill-eating fishes, squids, penguins and seals? Take your pick. If it is a fact my bet will be on the shrinkage of the Antarctic ice edge and the consequent decline in diatoms and hence of the krill that feed on those as the ice melts with the approach of summer. I thought about the possible effect on the krill of the Norwegian fishery for it near the Antarctic Peninsula, now producing vast quantities of Omega-3 super-oil to keep us all healthy - but I think that industry is not yet big enough. The nice thing about thinking about ecosystems is that they are so complex that one can imagine all kinds of processes and plausible hypotheses with little expectation that some clever dick will disprove your favorite.

To return to blubber: baleen whales add about 50% of their body weight when they are feeding in the Antarctic, and the greater part of that happens in the last weeks of their sojourn. This is understandable since they arrive from the tropics extremely thin after a long swim, perhaps with a suckling calf, and as they begin to feed they use much energy keeping warm in the Antarctic waters, which have not yet warmed to the southern summer. The old whalers knew all this, which is why they agreed, before the IWC, on a date before which they would not kill baleen whales. But with such huge changes during the summer feast, and considerable variability from place to place, detecting a change in an annual average of a fraction of a millimetre per year is a mighty challenge. Actually I don't believe it can be done, and certainly not by the flawed JARPA programme. The 'scientific sampling' has never covered the Antarctic Areas in question systematically, the locations and seasonal patterns of the sampling have changed from year to year, I doubt whether the blubber thickness can be routinely measured so accurately, and so on. So, I don't believe it.

It would be nice if someone outside the ICR could have a close look at the data. But here's another problem: data from the scientific whaling programmes are not in the public domain, nor routinely available to other scientists, not even to members of the Scientific Committee. Such data are 'owned' by the nation issuing the permits and its selected institutions. The question of data availability has been a problem throughout the history of the IWC. When I began my stint as a member of the Committee of Three, in 1961, the data on catches and whaling effort supplied by the whaling companies to the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics in Norway were not available to the IWC scientists, only summaries of them. We Three Wise Men, as we were called, had to fight to get them for our assigned work - we succeeded after a while. Japan also, year after year presented estimates of whale population numbers from the observations by their scouting vessels, but the SC could never verify them because only summaries of those data were provided, clearly constructed in such a way that one could not tell how many whales were actually seen and the actual lengths and shapes of the search tracks.

On the matter of hypotheses I have noticed in recent reports of the SC a frequent reference to "plausible hypotheses", in the context of such problems as revising the Revised Management Procedure, as the whaling countries are anxious to do. My dictionaries define this adjective as "Superficially fair or valuable but often specious". Hmmm! And "superficially pleasing or persuasive" as in a swindler or con man. Hmmm again!

Actually I have nothing against playing with plausibility as such - I've done it myself - but the idea of managing whaling by it is worrying, especially as the IWC history shows that the plausible hypotheses rarely if ever get either validated or jettisoned. In 1974 we all more or less agreed that the MSY level of baleen whale populations was plausibly about 60% of their pre-exploitation level. There was not the slightest evidence for that, and there still isn't. So how long will the twin hypotheses that whales are eating so much fish they are hurting fisheries, and the little minke whales ("cockroaches of the sea" as an Alternate Commissioner for Japan once famously called them) are stopping the glorious blue whales from thriving, and starving themselves in the process by multiplying without restraint.

PS- The original definition of 'plausible' was: "Worthy of Applause". Hooray! I recall, I think, Albert Einstein announcing "I have put together this equation - E = mc^2. I think it’s plausible. History will tell". Bang!

-Sidney Holt, Paciano, Italy.

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