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Science In The News Coursework Whaling

Japan has to stop capturing and killing whales under its whaling program in the Antarctic, called JARPA II, the International Court of Justice has said.

In a judgment issued in The Hague in the Netherlands today, the U.N. court has ordered Japan to revoke existing permits to catch whales for scientific purposes and to stop granting such permits in the future. The ruling is a victory for Australia, which filed court proceedings against Japan's whaling in 2010, arguing that it breached international obligations.

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling, allowing the taking and killing of whales for research purposes only. Scientific catch limits are set by each country on a yearly basis, submitted to a review by IWC's scientific committee.

Antiwhaling critics say that Japanese whale research is a fig leaf for commercial hunting, as whale meat can be sold to cover research costs. Japan counters that its whale meat sale is not profitable and that it needs to take and kill whales to study the animals and their potential as a food source.

The court said that JARPA II activities can “broadly be characterized as scientific research,” but found several “shortcomings” with the program's details—saying in particular that Japan had not paid enough attention to nonlethal methods. “The evidence does not establish that the programme’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives,” the court said. Therefore, “the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not 'for purposes of scientific research,' ” the judges added.

By 12 votes to four, the court ruled that Japan had breached several obligations under the Schedule to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Masayuki Komatsu, a former Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official now at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, says that whales are abundant, and therefore the moratorium and whaling restrictions are invalid in the first place. "It would not be appropriate to comply with a judgment based on illegal articles," Komatsu tells ScienceInsider.

The judgment is binding and without appeal, however, and Japan has already issued a statement saying that it will abide by the ruling, even though it is “disappointed.” (The statement was posted on Twitter by Patrick Ramage, director of the Global Whale Program of the International Fund for Animal Welfare; a Japanese foreign affairs official in The Hague confirmed its authenticity.)

With reporting by Dennis Normile in Tokyo.

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Tania Rabesandratana

Tania Rabesandratana is a freelance science writer/contributing correspondent for Science

European whales and dolphins may be at risk of extinction from the effects of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a team of researchers recently reported in Scientific Reports. Concentrations of PCBs in killer whales and bottlenose and striped dolphins, they found, were high enough to cause health damage.

PCBs have been banned in Europe, the United States and many other places for decades, so finding them in marine mammals may be surprising to some. It shouldn’t be, though. Marine mammal toxicologist Peter Ross of the Vancouver Museum told Science News that he doesn’t expect the chemicals to disappear from Pacific killer whales, another population in which the chemical contamination has been well documented, until the end of this century.

And PCBs are far from the only toxic chemicals that have been found to taint the blubber and other tissue of whales and dolphins. For example, toxaphene, DDT, PCBs and chlordane were found nearly two decades ago in beluga whales. And smaller levels of PCBs were found in blue whales.

Chlordane, toxaphene, DDT and PCBs are all examples of persistent organic pollutants — chemicals that were once widely used in agriculture and manufacturing (or accidentally produced through industrial processes or combustion) but are now banned due to their adverse effects on human health and the environment. These chemicals became especially troublesome not only because of their toxic qualities but also because they crept from their original destinations. Some are still leaching out of landfills. And they move through the environment, often through the food web. Because these chemicals don’t easily break down, animals that eat animals laced with these toxins end up with ever-higher levels of them — a process known as biomagnification.

That may explain in part why a plankton-eater like a blue whale can have lower levels of PCBs than beluga whales: The belugas are higher up on the food chain. Location and individual metabolism can also make a difference. And in the new study, the researchers note that females discharge PCBs through milk, while males do not. (Poor baby whales are getting mom’s PCBs.)

Persistent organic pollutants are not even the only problem when it comes to toxic chemicals. Mercury — from anthropogenic sources such as power generation — also works its way into whales and dolphins. Tests of whale meat for sale online in Japan last year revealed mercury levels as high as 47.5 times what is considered safe for human consumption.

With such reports about toxic chemicals in whales and dolphins going back decades, one has to wonder why people continue to hunt and eat these animals — let alone feed them to schoolchildren.

But the bigger worry, really, is for the whales themselves. Whaling drove many populations and species to near extinction, and the end of such hunting should let them recover. But as the latest report points out, that can be difficult when food sources are tainted with chemicals that may impair reproduction.