Whaling allegations “a gross misrepresentation of the situation”

Dr David Lusseau, a biologist at the University of Aberdeen, responds to recent accusations about the University’s connection to ‘scientific whaling’

In 2009, we instigated a study to determine the level of whale watching tourism that minke whales can sustain in Iceland. Iceland is a foraging ground for minke whales in the North Atlantic where they come to ‘fatten up’ before migrating south to have calves.

To do so, we needed to find a way to relate the observed animal behavioural disruptions that tourism causes, to the potential impact such disruptions would have on whale survival and reproduction. This could be achieved by understanding how much blubber - or fat – whales were trying to put on every day in order to determine how much foraging activities they needed to stay in good condition over the foraging season.

In spirit with the widely accepted ethical drivers of animal research – the 3Rs which is the replacement, reduction and refinement of the use of animals in research – to find this out we did not engage in whale sampling of any kind to avoid unnecessarily disturbing whales as data already existed that could be used.

We approached the Iceland Marine Research Institute, which is not a commercial entity but a governmental research unit similar to Marine Scotland Science or Cefas in the UK, to ask whether we could use their data that they had collected during their scientific programme that took minke whales from Iceland.  A one-off Memorandum of Understanding was set up between our two institutions to transfer the data which showed the blubber thickness along the body of whales. The result of this project was published in a very respectable journal that has stringent ethical review when assessing the publication of manuscript (http://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/3/427.full).

There are a couple of points worth stressing about this publication. Firstly, what we found out with this project allowed us to show that while whale watching tourism disrupts the feeding activities of minke whales in Iceland, the cumulative effect is currently too small to jeopardise the lives of minke whales.

Secondly, again in the spirit of the 3Rs, our research validated an existing research method which enables scientists to get this kind of information without  any sacrifice.  Therefore our work cannot be used to support further lethal sampling of whales as we explicitly show how to get the same information in a non-lethal manner.

There is a lot of politics involved with the use of whales, like there is for the use of other charismatic megafauna species. As scientists working at the coalface of conservation we need to stay objective and provide information needed for nations to make better management decisions about their natural resources. We need to do so following ethical principles that are widely accepted by the scientific community and the governments that fund the science.  Scientific findings and methods do not always please everyone, especially in politically-charged debates. That is why, after 20 years at the frontline of conservation I can say that it is important to understand facts rather than listen to rhetoric.

The facts here are simple:

  • We carried out a study to help the conservation of minke whales in the North Atlantic  - not only for tourism sustainability but also to inform how human activities can influence the conservation status of a key whale species in the North Atlantic
  • We carried out our work following the 3Rs ethical principles
  • Our information was gathered using already existing data which also meant there was no disruption of live whales to get data.
  • We validated non-lethal research methods so that if new data is needed, scientists can use these methods instead of lethal sampling ones.