From Dunedin to Aberdeen: Slaughtering Science or Making a Difference?

Collecting samples from a harpooned minke whale on the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru during a whale hunt in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. c. IFAWThe meeting is so large it’s only held every two years. The participants list is chock-full of heavyweights. The 20th annual meeting of the Society for Marine Mammalogy opened Monday here in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Like the stern Presbyterian Scots who founded this city two centuries ago, top whale, seal and dolphin scientists from around our ocean planet have migrated south to Dunedin this week to deliver literally hundreds of cutting-edge talks, posters and research presentations. Scottish scientists attending feel right at home here – Dunedin is Gaelic for Edinburgh and the street names and layout of the two cities are apparently identical.

At least one leading researcher based in Scotland, Dr. David Lusseau from the University of Aberdeen, is notably absent from this week’s sessions, but more on that lower down.

The theme of this leviathan gathering: Marine Mammal Conservation: Science Making a Difference. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and not just while watching scientific colleagues grapple with real world issues raised during conference workshops. 

On December 7th (!), the government of Japan launched its whaling fleet for the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary around Antarctica to pursue a self-allocated quota of up to 1,035 minke, fin and, potentially, humpback whales - all to be slaughtered in the name of “science”.

So in the margins of a marine science summit, Japan’s Fisheries Agency sends its fleet steaming past Australia and New Zealand to conduct its annual “scientific” hunt in defiance of a global ban on the killing of whales for commercial purposes imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986.

In recent years, the whaling ships have been confronted on the water by Captain Paul Watson and other self-appointed enforcers of the whaling ban from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS). This dangerous annual dance is again under way and will play out over the next four months. Watson and other Sea Shepherd reps have expressed concern at the growing aggressiveness of the larger Japanese whaling vessels and the tactics they may face this year.   

Not to be outdone, Japan Fisheries Agency bureaucrats beat on Watson and his Shepherds like kindergartners whacking a piñata, charging them with eco-terrorism and Japan-bashing in familiar effort to whip up public support inside Japan, where an ardently pro-whaling Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister rain down treats on an outmoded whaling industry increasingly reliant on taxpayer Yen to stay afloat.

The annual battle has been joined.

But this year’s episode of the “whale wars” differs in at least one important respect: a pending judgment is shortly to be issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), aka the World Court.

SEE ALSO: The last pretense of Japan's “scientific” whaling has disappeared

In July this year, following years of preparation, the government of Australia, supported by New Zealand, presented oral arguments appealing to the Court’s 15 justices to end Japan’s “scientific” slaughter in the Southern Ocean.

Final judgment is expected by early 2014.

For now, Japan has decided to ignore calls to suspend its whaling out of respect for the World Court’s judicial process...

The government of Japan is not the only one with fisheries bureaucrats trying to dress up whale slaughter as science.

Iceland’s Marine Research Institute has attempted the same strategy, though with less sophistication and international scrutiny. That began to change late last month when news surfaced that the University of Aberdeen, Scotland is providing scientific cover for Iceland’s so-called scientific whaling, which, as it turns out, the University is on record as supporting at the Scientific Committee of the IWC!

Following an exchange of written correspondence and a quiet face-to-face meeting requested by IFAW and other concerned UK NGOs urging the University to change course, Aberdeen researchers are stubbornly sticking to their whaling guns, arguing that the whales had already been slaughtered by Iceland and were therefore fair game for University researchers.

The Aberdeen-based academic at the centre of this developing scandal, Dr. David Lusseau, is unfortunately not in attendance at this week’s big conservation science confab Down Under. 

Lusseau, whom I have never met, describes himself as a “scientist beyond borders working on the margins of life, physical and social sciences”.

His “marginal” works include important research projects highlighting very real threats to whales and dolphins posed by irresponsible whale watching operations and, we now learn, research enthusiastically cited by Icelandic fisheries bureaucrats to paper over a glaring lack of academic credibility for Iceland’s “scientific” whale hunt.

Icelandic government officials now allow full-scale commercial efforts, driven by Icelandic fisheries magnate Kristjan Loftsson, to kill more whales in a near-singlehanded attempt to resuscitate the international trade in whale meat.

When news of the University of Aberdeen’s support for scientific whaling broke in the national newspaper “The Scotsman” in mid-November, Dr. Lusseau dismissed the coverage via his Twitter feed, tweeting simply: “a biased story by biased people”. 

Seemingly more concerned, though apparently less informed, a spokeswoman for the University denied Aberdeen was supporting scientific whaling.

“The University of Aberdeen is not a proponent of scientific whaling,” she told The Scotsman.

“We do not advocate whale sacrifice in support of our scientific research.” 


Very clear, at least until Lusseau submitted a more elaborate contradictory response late last month to Aberdeen’s student newspaper The Gaudie. In it, he acknowledges that the University instigated the study in question and that he personally approached and negotiated terms of the project with Iceland’s Marine Research Institute to secure data from whales killed in the course of Iceland’s “scientific” whaling programme.

Besides belatedly confirming The Scotsman’s story, Lusseau defends his actions, claiming he undertook his study to help conserve whales by investigating whether whale watching in Iceland disrupted their feeding activities (significant disruptions suffered by whales slaughtered in pursuit of his data escape mention). But imagine the whales’ relief as Lusseau announces his findings to The Gaudie readers: the cumulative effect of Iceland’s whale watching is “too small to jeopardise the lives of the minke whales”. Would that the same could be said of the lethal whaling programme on which his study is based.

Lusseau concludes his cleverly crafted Gaudie piece with a personal lament over the politics involved in the use of whales and a self-absolving plea that we all should “follow ethical principles that are widely accepted by the scientific community and the governments that fund the science”.

I am no scientist, let alone one of David Lusseau’s notoriety and credentials. Far be it from me to question his decision to focus his time and energy on the threat of whale watching and the promotion of scientific whaling. But sitting in the midst of many of the best and brightest of the marine science community gathered on the far side of the world, reading the curiously contradictory statements Lusseau and his colleagues have made on scientific whaling over the past three weeks, one thing is very clear from this distance, even to me: 

Whoever is in charge at Aberdeen needs quickly to clarify (perhaps first internally and then publicly) exactly what ethical principles guide the University and its staff, especially when it comes to Japan and Iceland’s “scientific” whaling. 

Once established, those principles must be consistently applied - irrespective of who funds the science - if the University of Aberdeen really hopes to make a difference for science and marine conservation.


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