For the first time in more than 40 years humpback whales are to associate the sound of a ships engine with the possibility of death, rather than photo-snapping sightseers.
On Sunday the Japanese whaling fleet, departed the southern port of Shimonoseki for the waters off Antarctica in what Japan’s Fisheries Agency says is its largest-ever scientific whale hunt.
The four ships plan to kill up to 50 humpbacks, as well as 935 minke whales and up to 50 fin whales ‚Äì more than double the number of whales Japan hunted a decade ago.
The targeting of humpbacks is the first large-scale hunt for the species since a 1963 moratorium in the Southern Pacific put the giant marine mammal under international protection and a worldwide ban was imposed in 1966.
While Japan says it needs to kill the animals in order to conduct research on their reproductive and feeding patterns, meat from the slaughtered whales ends up being sold on the commercial market and special events are conducted in Japan to promote the consumption of whale meat.
During the festive scenes that accompanies the departure of the whaling fleet, officials told the crowd that Japan should not give in to militant activists and preserve its whale-eating culture.
As a brass band played Popeye the Sailor Man and families waved little flags emblazoned with smiling whales, Hajime Ishikawa, head of this years hunt, described anti-whaling protesters as “environmental terrorists” and said¬† “we must fight against their hypocrisy and lies.”
However, while Japan claims it needs to kills the whales to determine their genetic composition, Australian scientists from the Southern Cross University have developed a technique that supplies many of the answers sought without the need for a single whale being killed.
Details of the the Australian technique were aired on the ABCs The 7.30 Report last week in an episode titled Busting the scientific whaling myth.
The technique involves collecting pieces of skin shed by the whales as they crash back into the water after breaching the ocean surface.
Dr Peter Harrison said the pieces of skin can identify the individual whale, it’s genealogy, and its gender. Additional research currently being conducted will enable scientists to also determine the age of the whale.
While some sources put the number of humpbacks prior to the 1963 moratorium at 1,200, Wally Franklin from the Oceania Project said that the last period of commercial whaling reduced the number of humpbacks from between 30,000 to 40,000 to about 100 or 150 individuals.
Mr Franklin said it will possibly take another 60 years for the species to return to pre-whaling levels, however the American Cetacean Society estimates the humpback population is currently about 30,000 to 40,000, or about a third of the number before modern whaling.
Although Japanese fisheries officials insist the population has returned to a sustainable level the species is still listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union.
It is estimated that about 10,000 humpback whales travel along the east coast of Australia each year on their annual migration to Antarctica where they feed, mate, and give birth close to shore, making them easy prey for whalers.
The whale-watching industry in Australia is estimated to be worth more than $A350 million per year.
The The 7.30 Report episode Busting the scientific whaling myth can be viewed at: http://abc.net.au/7.30/
¬© John Le Fevre, 2007
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