Japan's whaling fleet was set to leave port today for its biggest-ever scientific whale hunt in the South Pacific, with orders to kill up to 50 humpback whales -- the first known large-scale hunt for the species since a 1963 moratorium put humpbacks under international protection. The hunt is certain to renew Japan's angry standoff with anti-whaling forces.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS SPEAK OUT
The whaling expedition also will take as many as 935 Antarctic minke whales and 50 fin whales, but it is the plan to hunt the humpback -- a favorite among whale-watchers for its distinctive knobby head, intelligence and out-of-the-water acrobatics -- that has triggered environmentalists' condemnation. Greenpeace and the animal rights activist group Sea Shepherd have said they will track the South Pacific hunt. "These whales don't have to die," said a Greenpeace spokesman, Junichi Sato. "Humpbacks are very sensitive and live in close-knit pods. So even one death can be extremely damaging." Environmentalists claim that Japan's research program is a pretext for keeping the whaling industry alive.
SPECIES CONSIDERED 'VULNERABLE'
Humpback whales were hunted to near-extinction four decades ago. They have been off-limits since 1963, except for a few caught under a subsistence program by Greenland and the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Each caught one humpback last year, according to the International Whaling Commission. The former Soviet Union defied the ban and hunted humpbacks until 1973. It is disputed how many were killed. The American Cetacean Society estimates the global humpback population at 30,000 to 40,000 -- about a third of the number before modern whaling. The species is listed as "vulnerable" by the World Conservation Union.
IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE
Japanese fisheries officials insist that the animals' population has returned to a sustainable level. "Humpback whales in our research area are rapidly recovering," said the Fisheries Agency's whaling chief, Hideki Moronuki. "Taking 50 humpbacks from a population of tens of thousands will have no significant impact whatsoever." He said killing whales lets marine biologists study their internal organs. Ovaries provide vital clues to reproductive systems, earwax indicates age, and stomach contents reveal eating habits, he said. Meat from Japan's scientific catch is sold commercially, as permitted by the IWC, but Japanese officials deny that profit is a goal. Japan also argues that whaling is a tradition in its country that dates back to the early 1600s, and Tokyo has pushed unsuccessfully at the IWC to reverse the 1986 commercial whaling moratorium.