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Scientific Permit Whaling

Information on scientific permits, review procedure guidelines and current permits in effect.

Special Permits to kill, take and treat whales for scientific research

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946) is the international agreement which establishes the International Whaling Commission.  Article VIII of the Convention states that:

Article VIII

1. Notwithstanding anything contained in this Convention any Contracting Government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit, and the killing, taking, and treating of whales in accordance with the provisions of this Article shall be exempt from the operation of this Convention. Each Contracting Government shall report at once to the Commission all such authorizations which it has granted. Each Contracting Government may at any time revoke any such special permit which it has granted.

2. Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government by which the permit was granted.

3. Each Contracting Government shall transmit to such body as may be designated by the Commission, in so far as practicable, and at intervals of not more than one year, scientific information available to that Government with respect to whales and whaling, including the results of research conducted pursuant to paragraph 1 of this Article and to Article IV.

4. Recognizing that continuous collection and analysis of biological data in connection with the operations of factory ships and land stations are indispensable to sound and constructive management of the whale fisheries, the Contracting Governments will take all practicable measures to obtain such data.


Recent special permits


Japan has issued scientific permits in the Antarctic and in the western North Pacific every year in recent years.

The 2004/05 Antarctic season was the final year of the 16-year 'JARPA' programme, following a 2-year feasibility study. After completion of the JARPA programme, Japan initiated a JARPA II programme, initially as a 2-year feasibility study, for 850±10% and 10 fin whales in the Antarctic. In 2009/10, the full JARPA II programme commenced and the current permit has been for 850±10% Antarctic minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpback whales annually. To date, Japan has refrained from taking humpback whales.

Click here for more information on JARPA and JARPA II

ANTARCTIC (1) – JARPA (1987/88- 2004/2005)

The stated objectives of the 16-year 'JARPA' programme were:

  1. estimation of biological parameters (especially the natural mortality rate) to improve management;
  2. elucidation of stock structure to improve management;
  3. examination of the role of whales in the Antarctic ecosystem;
  4. examination of the effect of environmental changes on cetaceans.

Research activity combined a randomised lethal catch (400±10% minke whales each year) with concurrent line-transect sighting surveys. Operations alternated each year between Area IV + Area IIIE (35°E-130°E) and Area V + Area VIW (130°E-145°W). At that time the most recently agreed population estimates from independent surveys undertaken by the IWC were for Area IV in 1988/89 (74,700; 95% confidence interval 45,000 – 123,000) and Area V in 1985/86 (294,600; 95% CI 225,000 – 386,000).

A major reassessment of the abundance of the Antarctic minke whale is underway and the Committee agrees that while it does not have current best estimates, in some areas (Areas I, II and V) the estimates are considerably lower. Reasons for this are being investigated.

The Scientific Committee reviewed the results of the JARPA programme annually but carried out two major reviews, a mid-term review in 1997 ( 48, pp.95-105) and a final review in 2006/2007 (J.Cetacean Res.Manage. 10 (Supp.), pp.58-59).

Click here to read more about the final review in 2006/2007

Final review  in 2006/2007

An intersessional meeting to review the results from the JARPA research programme was convened in Tokyo in December 2006. The report of the JARPA Review Workshop (J.Cetacean Res. Manage. 10 (Supp.): pp.411-445) can be downloaded HERE while a copy of its conclusions can be found HERE. A short summary of the workshop is given below.


In summary, the workshop agreed that considerable data have been collected by the JARPA programme by both lethal and non-lethal methods, but there was disagreement at the workshop regarding the analyses presented and the interpretation of some of these data. A number of recommendations for further analyses were made. Much progress has been made in addressing Antarctic minke whale abundance and trends and provided that the recommendations from the workshop are followed, the Committee may be able to agree estimates although the confidence intervals are wide and probably will preclude information on trend becoming available. For humpback whales the abundance estimates provided useful steps towards acceptable estimates of abundance.

A considerable amount of work has been undertaken on population structure since the mid-term review held in 1997 (IWC, 1998). The workshop agreed that there are at least two stocks of Antarctic minke whales present in the JARPA research area, and an area of transition in the region around 150°-165°E was suggested. The data do not support the current IWC management Areas for Antarctic minke whales. Samples from the breeding areas would greatly facilitate these analyses, and are likely to be required to resolve issues relevant to stock structure and mixing within the JARPA research area.

The estimation of natural mortality was the main initial objective of JARPA. However, the confidence limits around the current estimate spanned such a wide range that the parameter is still effectively unknown. More precise estimates of natural mortality rates depend on the use of commercial catch-at-age data, but there are some yet unresolved problems with those data.


The Committee welcomed the oceanographic and krill-related work undertaken since the 1997 Workshop. The Committee also agreed that considerable relevant data had been collected by the JARPA programme on matters related to body condition and feeding. However, it is clear that the nature of the analyses presented at the JARPA review meant that relatively little progress had been made in addressing the role of Antarctic minke whales in the ecosystem.

Levels of toxic metals and organochlorines were low compared with whales in the Northern Hemisphere.


In conclusion, after reviewing the report of the Workshop at the Committee meeting in 2007 the Scientific Committee itself concurred with its view that ‘The results of the JARPA programme, while not required for management under the RMP, have the potential to improve management of minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere’ in a number of ways. As has been the case in past Committee discussions on of the respective merits of lethal and non-lethal methodology, it was not possible to reach consensus amongst the participants.’

Antarctic (2) – JARPA II (continuing since 2005/2006)

A new large-scale Antarctic programme (called JARPA II) commenced during the austral summer of 2005/06 and is ongoing. The first two seasons were feasibility studies. The objectives for JARPA II differ from those for JARPA and are defined by Japan as:

(1)     monitoring of the Antarctic ecosystem;

(2)     modelling competition among whale species and developing future management objectives;

(3)     elucidation of temporal and spatial changes in stock structure;

(4)     improving the management procedure for Antarctic minke whale stocks.

Click here to read more about JARPA II

JARPA II is focussed on Antarctic minke, humpback and fin whales and possibly other species in the Antarctic ecosystem that are major predators of Antarctic krill. Annual sample sizes for the proposed full-scale research (lethal sampling) are 850 (with 10% allowance) Antarctic minke whales (Eastern Indian Ocean and Western South Pacific stocks), 50 humpback whales (D and E stocks) and 50 fin whales (Indian Ocean and the Western South Pacific stocks). The research methods for cetaceans for JARPA II are similar to those for JARPA. The programme also includes non-lethal research components such as sighting surveys, biopsy sampling, acoustic surveys for prey species and the collection of oceanographic data.

Reviews of JARPA II

There has been and remains considerable disagreement over the value of this research both within the Scientific Committee and the Commission. Particular disagreement within the Committee has focussed on a number of issues, including: the relevance of the proposed research to management, appropriate sample sizes and applicability of alternate (non-lethal) research methods. The major review of the proposal by the Committee at the 2005 Annual Meeting (J.Cetacean. Res.Manage. 8 (Supp.), pp.48-52) can be found here.  It is planned to review the first six years of the study using the ‘new’ procedure in the latter half of 2013.

The Commission has passed a number of resolutions by majority vote asking Japan to refrain from issuing permits for this programme. Resolutions can be found here.

North Pacific (1) – JARPN I(1994-1999)

Japan carried out a research permit programme (100 minke whales per year) in the western North Pacific from 1994-99 known as JARPN. The primary aims of the programme had been to clarify questions of stock identity to improve the design of RMP Implementation Simulation Trials for the North Pacific and to act as a feasibility study for the development of a programme on feeding ecology. The Scientific Committee agreed that the information obtained was useful for management as it had been and will continue to be used in the refinement of Implementation Simulation Trials for North Pacific common minke whales. However, no consensus view was reached on whether the results could have been obtained using non-lethal research techniques in a suitable timeframe.

The report of the Committee’s February 2000 workshop to review the results of this programme (J.Cetacean Res.Manage. 3 (Supp.), pp.371-413) can be found here.

After completion of a six year JARPN programme in the North Pacific in 1999, Japan initiated a JARPN II programme, initially as a 2-year feasibility study in 2000, for 100 common minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales and 10 sperm whales in the western North Pacific. 

Click here for more information on JARPN and JARPN II

North Pacific (1) – JARPN I(1994-1999)

Japan carried out a research permit programme (100 minke whales per year) in the western North Pacific from 1994-99 known as JARPN. The primary aims of the programme had been to clarify questions of stock identity to improve the design of RMP Implementation Simulation Trials for the North Pacific and to act as a feasibility study for the development of a programme on feeding ecology. The Scientific Committee agreed that the information obtained was useful for management as it had been and will continue to be used in the refinement of Implementation Simulation Trials for North Pacific common minke whales. However, no consensus view was reached on whether the results could have been obtained using non-lethal research techniques in a suitable timeframe.

The report of the Committee’s February 2000 workshop to review the results of this programme can be found here.

North Pacific (2) - JARPN II (2000 and ongoing)

At the 2000 Annual Meeting, the Government of Japan submitted an extensive new proposal entitled ‘Research Plan For Cetacean Studies In The Western North Pacific Under Special Permit (JARPN II) - Feasibility Study Plan For 2000 And 2001’. It was envisioned that 100 common minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales and 10 sperm whales would be taken in each year. The stated goal of the programme was to obtain information to contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of marine living resources (including whales) in the western North Pacific. It included sub-projects on:

(1)     feeding ecology (including prey consumption and preferences of cetaceans and ecosystem modelling);

(2)     stock structure;

(3)     environmental effects on cetaceans and the marine ecosystem.

Click here to read more about review of feasibility study in 2000

Review of feasibility study in 2000

Some members expressed concern that most of the objectives of the programme did not address questions of high priority for the rational management of the stocks concerned and would not contribute significantly to research needs identified by the Committee. Although the primary objective of the proposal (which pertained to top predators) was scientific in nature, they believed that none of the objectives or sub-objectives were necessary for the management of any of the large whale species being killed.

In response, other members drew attention to the ambitious nature of the programme. They believed that determining the impact of cetaceans on fish stocks was a matter of some urgency, that constituted a critically important research need. They also noted that the information on North Pacific minke whale stock structure was relevant to Implementation Simulation Trials.

Concern was also expressed that with the sample size and methods proposed, it was unlikely that several of the objectives of the programme would be met, especially with respect to sperm whales. The same scientists commented that the ecosystem modelling approach was poorly developed and that the likely precision of any fisheries information (both past data and future) was poor.

In response, other members stated that this was a feasibility study and that one of the aims was to investigate the methodology. They agreed that model development was at an early stage, but they believed that by building on models developed for other regions the programme had the potential to address fundamentally important questions. They felt that all aspects of the programme would improve as data became available. There was once again disagreement at to the amount of data that could be obtained using non-lethal research techniques

In 2002, after completion of the feasibility study, Japan put forward a proposal for a full long-term research programme primarily aimed at feeding ecology in the context of contributing to the ‘conservation and sustainable use of marine living resources in the western North Pacific, especially within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone’ The  programme proposed the taking of 340 minke, 50 Bryde's, 100 sei and 10 sperm whales annually in the western North Pacific.

At that time the most recent population estimate for common minke whales in the western North Pacific and Okhotsk Sea was about 25,000 (95% CI 12,800- 48,600). A preliminary estimate of abundance for western North Pacific Bryde’s whales is about 22,000 (95% CI 15,000 – 32,600). There remain no IWC agreed abundance estimates for North Pacific sei or sperm whales. [Read more….]

Click here to read more about review of full proposal in 2002

Review of full proposal in 2002

The review of the original full proposal by the Scientific Committee can be found here. The division of views within the Committee remained much the same as for the feasibility study (see above). In terms of the proposal itself, concerns were expressed over the research design and the fact that this proposal constituted a significant change in form over previous use of the provision of research under the Article VIII, by not specifying an end point. Other members welcomed the research initiative of JARPN II, noting that it addressed important issues for the western North Pacific as well as in other areas.

With respect to the objectives of the programme, some members argued that the feeding ecology objective was both relevant to the interests of the IWC, and that it addressed other critically important research needs. Others argued that the assumptions inherent in the proposal about that objective were too simple, and unduly emphasised direct negative effects of cetacean predation over the balance of the several potentially negative and positive effects of fishery resources and cetaceans on each other. Therefore, they concluded that the objective as structured and proposed is not relevant to the interests of the IWC.

The Committee agreed that pollution-related objective this objective is relevant to the interests of the IWC. It was also agreed that the stock structure objective addressed those species for which an RMP Implementation is under development. The Scientific Committee agrees that this objective is relevant to the interests of the IWC. However, some members contended that, because of sampling design, the JARPN II programme would not yield results that would adequately meet this objective, and disagreed that lethal sampling was required. Other members disagreed with these statements.

In relation to guideline 5, some members noted that while the sample sizes for minke, Bryde’s and sei whales appear appropriate, given the at least six year timeframe, the sample size for sperm whales is lower than can be expected to give statistically significant results. More recently, others questioned the increased sample sizes proposed in 2004.

With respect to methodology, several members argued that a range of questions of relevance to all identified research objectives could be addressed by non-lethal sampling techniques, e.g. for pollutant monitoring (biopsy sampling for fatty acid and stable isotope analysis), for stock structure (photo identification, biopsy sampling and faecal sampling), and for feeding ecology (faecal sampling).

The proponents argued that lethal sampling was necessary to meet the research objectives, especially for feeding ecology, pollution and estimation of biological parameters. Quantitative data on prey are required for modelling purposes. At present, non-lethal sampling techniques are inadequate for this purpose. Others noted that they did not agree that the feeding ecology objective was appropriate, and therefore did not feel that lethal sampling was required. For the stock structure objective, they argued, non-lethal biopsy sampling would allow much larger sample sizes and hence allow greater statistical power.

With respect to the issue of the effect of catches on the stocks, some members judged that based on the information in the proposal there was substantial risk of stock depletion from the proposed sample sizes for both the O-stock and the J-stock of common minke whales, as well as for Bryde’s whales should they be taken around Ogasawara Island. These members also judged there was no basis for evaluating the effect of catches on sei whales because the sole abundance estimate involves selective use of surveys as well as extrapolations using JSV data, and the lack of information about stock structure made it uncertain how to evaluate the effect of coastal catches relative to an abundance estimate from the western North Pacific. A similar concern was expressed regarding sperm whales because of an inappropriate dive-time correction of the abundance estimate.

Other members judged that the proposed research samples would not pose a threat to the O- and the J-stocks, and that the perceived risks for minke whales are being overemphasised. Further, there is no risk for Bryde’s whales in the Ogasawara area because this species is not resident and not planned to be taken here. Selective use of survey did not occur in the abundance estimation of sei whales. Rather, based on the distribution of the species in June and July, the survey data in 1997 and 2001 were chosen for calculation of an abundance estimate, which was extrapolated with JSV data. As the research area of JARPN II extends from the coastal area to the offshore area, especially the latter being important for sei whales, the effect of coastal catches is limited. They believed that the abundance estimates for sei and sperm whales are reliable.

Review of ongoing programme in 2009

The most recent review of the JARPN II programme occurred in January 2009. It was undertaken by an expert panel under the new guidelines. The full report of the panel can be found HERE and the comments of the Scientific Committee can be found here.





Iceland (2003- 2007)

The stated overall objective of the research programme was to increase understanding of the biology and feeding ecology of important cetacean species in Icelandic waters for improved management of living marine resources based on an ecosystem approach. While Iceland stated that its programme was intended to strengthen the basis for conservation and sustainable use of cetaceans, it noted that it was equally intended to form a contribution to multi-species management of living resources in Icelandic waters.

The original research programme had multiple specific objectives among which the order of priority differs between the whale species. For common minke whales the primary specific objective was to increase the knowledge of the species' feeding ecology in Icelandic waters. For fin and sei whales, the primary specific objective was the study of biological parameters during the apparent increase in population size in recent decades. These objectives were the basis for the proposed sample sizes. Other research objectives include studies of population structure, pollutants, parasites and pathogens, and the applicability of non-lethal methods.

The Commission passed a Resolution relevant to this programme in 2003 (24 in favour, 21 against and 1 abstention).

In practice, the Government of Iceland only issued permits for the common minke whale segment of the original proposal.  A total of 200 common minke whales were caught from 2003-2007 as originally proposed, although the initial proposal expected 100 per year for two years. Again, as in the past, different views on the value of this research were expressed in the Scientific Committee. 

Click here for more information on Iceland

Scientific review of the original proposal

With respect to the objectives of the programme, some Scientific Committee members maintained that the proposal addressed two research areas that have been identified by the Committee. One is the need for research on fisheries-cetaceans interactions and some members believed that in this area the research would be useful. Other members maintained that such research has no bearing on the IWC’s management of whale stocks. A second area is the need for research on pollutant loads. While some members believed that the proposed work would help to address this research area, others noted that the Committee had not recommended lethal sampling for pollutant studies. Further, it had also not given high priority to pollution studies for baleen whales generally. While not necessary for the application of the RMP, stock definition has proved to be important in the development of an Implementation of the RMP. The proposed research addresses this issue, although some members believed that more appropriate and effective non-lethal methods are available to address the question.

It was noted that the proposal did not provide a scientific justification for the proposed sample sizes, arguing that they were sufficient for the planning purposes of a feasibility study. Some members argued that the proposal should not be taken as a feasibility study because in many aspects it was an extension of the 1986-1989 research programme, and as such, evaluation of the sufficiency of sample sizes was appropriate. In contrast, the proponents argued that the proposal was primarily to determine the feasibility of sampling of common minke whales, and to a degree, fin whales in areas where they had not previously been sampled.

With respect to methodology, some members considered the sampling regime to be insufficient to meet the stated objectives. Spatial and temporal elements of the feeding ecology sampling, in particular, were considered unlikely by some to yield data suitable for the planned multi-species modelling. The proponents countered that this is a feasibility study in which sample sizes may not be large enough to fully address the feeding ecology objectives in two years. However, sample sizes should be both temporally and spatially sufficient to guide the design of a future study. Furthermore, they argued that the scale of prey monitoring both in time and space is always a difficult question and might be adjusted in future years of the project. Some members also felt that the proposed study of parasites and pathology would benefit from a more clearly identified hypothesis.

With respect to non-lethal methods, some members recommended new techniques for pregnancy testing. However, the proponents noted that neither age nor sexual maturity could be determined solely by non-lethal methods. Other members also noted that the objectives of the pollutant research could be satisfactorily addressed with standard biopsy sampling. The proponents, however, noted the importance of obtaining pollutant samples from internal organs, because the relationship between contaminant loads in skin and organs has not yet been assessed. With respect to the high priority given to lethal sampling to identify differences in fin whale diet, some members noted that this could initially be explored using stable isotope analyses of non-lethal samples (skin, faeces).

With respect to the effects of catches on the stocks, the Committee agreed that it is unlikely that the proposed take of 100 common minke whales per year will have a significant impact on the Central North Atlantic stock of common minke whales. Some members expressed agreement with the proponents that the proposed takes would be highly unlikely to have any detectable effect on the stock of fin whales. However, the Committee could not agree on the effects of the proposed take on the conservation status of fin whales, referring mainly to previous disagreements on stock structure. For sei whales, the Committee could not agree whether the proposed take should be considered in relation to an abundance estimate relating to an area extending well beyond the whaling grounds and possibly covering more than one stock, or whether it should be considered solely in relation to estimates from the intended whaling area. This disagreement prevented any consensus about the possible effects on the conservation status of the stock concerned.

Final scientific review of the completed proposal

                Review of the results of the proposal under the new guidelines is expected in early 2013



Commission Review of Special Permits

The Commission often makes comments on any proposals its receives from Contracting Governments to establish or modify special permit programmes.  It does this by passing Resolutions.

Scientific Committee Review

Although  the issuance of special permits is the responsibility of the member government concerned, proposed permits have to be submitted for review by the Scientific Committee [link to ‘simple’ Scientific Committee].  The Scientific Committee’s review concentrates on whether:

(1)     the permit adequately specifies its aims, methodology and the samples to be taken;

(2)     the research is essential for rational management, the work of the Scientific Committee or other critically important research needs;

(3)     methodology and sample size are likely to provide reliable answers to the questions being asked;

(4)     the questions can be answered using non-lethal research methods;

(5)     the catches will have an adverse effect on the stock;

(6)     the potential for scientists from other nations to join the research is adequate.

Click here for more information on the Scientific Committee review process

The Scientific Committee comprises around 200 scientists (including some proposing the permit). As one might expect in such a large group of scientists, the review of any permits rarely results in unanimity either in favour or against the scientific merit of the proposal. In addition to questions surrounding whether some or all of the data data can be obtained using non-lethal means, difficulties arise over the interpretation of whether the answers one obtains using such data are ‘essential’, ‘reliable enough’ or ‘critical’? This involves a degree of value judgement outside the purely scientific sphere and there is no consensus on the answers to these either within the Commission or the Scientific Committee.

The published reports of the Scientific Committee reflect the agreements and disagreements over reviews of both new and continuing permits. In 2009, the Committee and the Commission adopted a new method of reviewing permits. [Read more].

Click here to read more about scientific committee review process

The new Scientific Committee review process

To improve the review process for both new permit proposals and periodic review of results of ongoing or completed programmes, in 2009, the Committee proposed a new approach that was accepted by the Commission. The primary change involved the initial review of a new proposal, or interim and final reviews of permit programmes at a small specialist workshop with a ‘limited but adequate’ number of invited experts (The ‘Panel’) who may or may not be present members of the Scientific Committee. In addition to the Panel, a limited number of scientists associated with the proposal can attend the workshop in an advisory role, primarily to present the proposal and answer points of clarification and not to participate in the discussion of the Panel.

The practical way this was implemented at the first meeting this process (a review of the ongoing JARPN II programme see below) was that proponents provided brief presentations of their documents to the Panel in the morning session and answered questions of clarification; for the rest of the day the Panel was left alone to discuss the results and develop its report. The detailed process can be found HERE.

The full report of the recent expert panel workshop JARPN II can be found HERE. The Scientific Committee’s comments on that report can be found here.


Safety at sea

For several years, there have been conflicts at sea involving the Japanese vessels undertaking special permit whaling in the Southern Ocean and certain NGOs, notably the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Despite the great differences of view within the Commission over special permit whaling, the Commission has agreed several times by consensus that while it supports the right to legitimate and peaceful forms of protest and demonstration, it does not condone and in fact condemns any actions that are a risk to human life and property, as well as the environment, in relation to the activities of vessels at sea. Its most recent resolution to this affect was passed in 2011 and can be found here.