Environmental Scientist Quests to Save the Whales, Protect Human Health

Posted: January 3, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Whale surfacing
Environmental science and policy professor Chris Parsons is on the frontlines of whale and dolphin conservation; he recently published a critique of the Japanese government’s controversial plan to harvest whales.
Photo courtesy of Alan Whaley

By Tara Laskowski

When he was five years old, Chris Parsons liked to duct-tape an empty plastic soda bottle to his back and motor around the living room pretending he was scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau-style.

Now an assistant professor in environmental science and policy, Parsons is on the frontlines of whale and dolphin conservation. He has scuba dived many times, had his share of sifting through and testing whale blubber and is now taking on the policy side of the issue. Since 1999, Parsons has been lobbying for whales and dolphins as a British member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission.

Parsons is currently examining the Japanese scientific whaling program. He recently published a critique of Japan’s program in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, arguing that the program is not only founded on “bad science” but is also a potential health risk.

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission moratorium banning commercial whaling came into effect. In Japan, whale hunting is still conducted for scientific purposes. However, policy experts like Parsons argue that the “science” is really just used as a legal loophole.

“The results these scientists are getting can be obtained by using nonlethal means,” says Parsons. “It’s really just an excuse for the government to continue whaling.”

Whaling Threatens Species and Humans

Chris Parsons
Chris Parsons

Many whale species are currently classified as endangered or vulnerable, including some of the species that countries such as Japan hunt. Because the tracking systems to count the number of a particular whale are not very accurate, scientists do not have a sense of how threatened some of the species are. Continued whaling might cause them to go extinct.

And perhaps an even more alarming aspect of Japan’s whaling program is the public health risk. Once the killed whales are released, the meat is sold for public consumption.

According to Parson’s paper, more than one third of “scientifically harvested” minke whales tested were contaminated with Brucella pathogens. Brucella can cause brucellosis in humans and livestock, and can lead to fever, depression, joint swelling, spontaneous abortion and infertility.

In addition, many whale and dolphin products being sold for human consumption are contaminated with mercury, pesticides and other pollutants; with levels frequently exceeding Japanese government health regulations by a large margin.

Japanese Program Raises Alarms

“Somewhat alarmingly, one of [the Japanese government’s] marketing initiatives is to provide whale meat to elementary schools for school lunch programs,” wrote Parsons in his paper. “… The ethical and moral implications of encouraging consumption of meat products known to be contaminated … – to children who do not have a choice in the consumption of the products – are staggering.”

Parsons’ coauthors have also found marine animal meat for sale in Japan falsely labeled even though the government has a stringent policy on food labels. Parsons believes the government has not properly communicated the potential health risks to the public.

“Far from warning Japanese people of the escalating health risks associated with consuming contaminated cetacean products, the Japanese government is actively promoting expansion of the market,” Parsons wrote.

An active champion for whale and dolphin conservation, as well as public health and the environment, Parsons is hoping his critique of the Japanese whaling program will call attention to an alarming issue he sees being largely ignored.

“My hope is Japanese scientists or health officials might read this article and grow concerned,” says Parsons. “It’s a big ethical issue.”

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