The inconsistent ethics of whale research

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Almost 40 years after a majority of the member states of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted in 1982 to end commercial whaling indefinitely, whaling continues, although to a lesser extent everything like scientific research using the products of this hunt. And according to a new study, this research is not limited to scientists in whaling countries: Researchers from countries whose governments boast anti-whaling policies are also working with whaling companies to procure water. meat, tissue and other whale products for research.

The study authors reviewed 35 peer-reviewed articles and conference abstracts describing research relying on Icelandic whaling products since 2003, when that country resumed whaling after an 11 hiatus. years. They argue that their findings underscore “the need to improve ethical guidelines for whale research involving samples or data from controversial sources such as Icelandic whaling.”

Of the 59 institutions involved in the research identified in the study, almost half were from four countries: Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. These countries supported the 1982 vote and formally opposed the fact that when Iceland resumed whaling in 2003, it did so after joining the CBI. Of the articles reviewed by the authors, about half were partially funded by government grants from one or more of these countries.

The purpose of the article is not to name and shame individual scientists who use the products of whaling in their research. Instead, study co-author Vassili Papastavrou of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who wrote the article with independent whale researcher Conor Ryan and Peter Sand at LMU Munich in Germany, argues that The thicket of ethical and legal issues surrounding whaling is too entangled to expect individual scientists to navigate on their own.

“There are a whole bunch of international laws regarding whales and the decisions that have been made, and those are beyond the competence of the average academic,” Papastavrou insists. “We don’t say what’s right or wrong. We are not the arbitrators. But there really is a need for an appropriate set of ethical guidelines to help everyone involved determine what to do. “

The problem is more than just an inconsistency, says Hal Whitehead, a biologist and whale specialist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who was not involved in the study. While some researchers may excuse the use of the proceeds of whaling on the grounds that these whales were going to be killed anyway, their very involvement could make future whaling more likely, he says.

“It is a problem when the science that is done on the products of whaling is used to justify whaling,” he says.

Two guidelines, Papastavrou argues, would prevent a situation in which governments with anti-whaling policies fund research that is based on the whaling they oppose.

On the one hand, says Papastavrou, “I think any government funding should require an appropriate ethical review of the nature of research. And is what you are proposing to do legal in your own country? The latter, he argues, would align this research with the standards set over the past decades by the medical research community, which now prohibits the outsourcing of medical trials to countries with less stringent regulations. Further, he and his co-authors cite a guideline from the American Medical Association that states, “If unethical experimental data can be replaced by data from ethical research and achieve the same goals, then it must. be done.

One of the scientists whose work was included in the analysis, Alex Aguilar of the University of Barcelona in Spain, questions what he sees as the hypothesis of Papastavrou and his colleagues of a consensus according to which commercial whaling is unethical. Aguilar argues that commercial whaling “is a perfectly acceptable activity for many IWC member countries”.

Aguilar also points out that the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s guidelines for handling marine mammals in field research state that, where possible, activities such as hunting “should be used as a source of material for studies. scientists on marine mammals ”.

In contrast, another researcher whose work has been cited by Papastavrou and colleagues says he thinks there should be “more ethical guidelines instituted by journals as well as professional societies.”

The researcher, who asked not to be named for fear of embarrassing or unintentionally messy colleagues, was previously drawn to the idea that using meat and tissue samples to obtain data on whale biology could potentially lead to better conservation efforts.

More recently, however, his position has changed. “Aided not only by my own awareness and evolution as a researcher, but also by a radical change in scientific methods and perspective, I am now much less comfortable using such fabrics of dubious provenance than ever before. previously. Not only would I no longer use such fabrics, but I would be happier if no one did. “

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