Monday, November 19, 2007

Whale climate

There are two different stories on this morning's BBC Online Science/Nature pages whose contrast talks very well of the limits that governments place on the implementation of scientific advice when there are vested (or nationalistic) interests at play.

On the one hand, pursuant to the release of the synthesis report of 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the BBC outlines the scientific consensus on the need to respect the precautionary principle where natural resources and habitats are likely to be affected by climate change. This includes the polar regions where ice-shelf melting is occuring faster than previously expected. The melting of the ice-shelf is associated with global sea-level rise as well as the risk of radical changes in ocean currents with likely paramount knock-on effects for marine living resources. In Valencia where the IPCC report was released last week, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described his impression and concern after he witnessed polar melting in Antarctica.

Yet on the same page, there is another story about the departure of the Japanese Antarctic whaling fleet that left Yokahama this week-end to carry out its annual "scientific hunt". In a dramatic escalation of its "scientific" hunt, the Japanese Government announced its intention to catch, for the first time in 40 years, fifty humpback whales because, according to the spokesman of the Japanese Fisheries Agency, "humpback whales in our research area are rapidly recovering."

Not only is there no scientific consensus as to whether humpback whales have recovered to levels that would allow catch quotas, as shown in the paper published last week in Nature precedings. But when one takes account of the uncertaintiers arising from climate change, it's hard to make predictions on the future of the Southern humpback whales' feeding grounds.

The Japanese Government is talking of maintaining the "harvest of whales" to sustainable levels. How many whales deserve to stay in the ocean is a very loaded question, of course. Even if there are more humpbacks now than when they were brought to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling in the 1960s, it's obvious that current populations are minuscule compared to their original size. It's also clear, of course, that the availability of food for whales isn't the same (because of overfishing, not because of the whales' apetite of course).

[The Japanese Government could also start with helping international efforts to maintain bluefin tuna and other commercial fish harvests to sustainable levels]

For it to be "scientific", the Japanese whaling expedition should take account of climate change. And clearly, it hasn't.

We're going to debate these and other issues in Tokyo on 30-31 January, 2008 at the Symposium "A Change in Climate for Whales" we're organizing on behalf of Pew. The title of the symposium refers to the political climate around the whaling issue, of course. But I'm afraid that with its plan to kill fifty humpback whales, the Japanese Government isn't going to help change, nor save, the climate.

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