Japan whaling expedition will hunt humpbacks for first time in decades
Monday, November 19, 2007
SHIMONOSEKI, Japan -- A defiant Japan embarked on its largest whaling expedition in decades Sunday, targeting protected humpbacks for the first time since the 1960s despite international opposition. An anti-whaling protest boat awaited the fleet offshore.
Bid farewell in a festive ceremony in the southern port of Shimonoseki, four ships headed for the waters off Antarctica, resuming a hunt that was cut short by a deadly fire last February that crippled the fleet's mother ship.
Families waved little flags emblazoned with smiling whales and the crew raised a toast with cans of beer, while a brass band played "Popeye the Sailor Man." Officials told the crowd that Japan should not give into militant activists and preserve its whale-eating culture.
"They're violent environmental terrorists," mission leader Hajime Ishikawa told the ceremony. "Their violence is unforgivable ... we must fight against their hypocrisy and lies."
The whalers plan to kill up to 50 humpbacks in what is believed to be the first large-scale hunt for the once nearly extinct species since a 1963 moratorium in the Southern Pacific put the giant marine mammals under international protection.
The mission also aims to take as many as 935 minke whales and up to 50 fin whales in what Japan's Fisheries Agency says is its largest-ever scientific whale hunt. The expedition lasts through April.
Japan says it needs to kill the animals in order to conduct research on their reproductive and feeding patterns.
While scientific whale hunts are allowed by the International Whaling Commission, or IWC, critics say Japan is simply using science as a cover for commercial whaling.
The anti-whaling group Greenpeace said its protest ship, Esperanza, was moored just outside Japan's territorial waters and would chase the fleet to the southern ocean.
There was no immediate word Sunday of an offshore confrontation.
"We are going to do everything in our power to reduce their catch," Karli Thomas, expedition leader on the Esperanza, told The Associated Press by telephone. "Japan's research program is a sham. We demand that the Japanese government cancel it."
An IWC moratorium on commercial whaling took effect in 1986, but Japan -- where coastal villages have hunted whales for hundreds of years -- has killed almost 10,500 mostly minke and Brydes whales under research permits since then. Tokyo has argued unsuccessfully for years for the IWC to overturn the moratorium.
The Japanese hunt, which puts meat from the whales on the commercial market, is growing rapidly despite an increasingly vocal anti-whaling movement. This winter season's target of up to 1,035 whales is more than double the number the country hunted a decade ago.
Japan argues that it should have the right to hunt whales as long as they are not in danger of extinction.
The head of Japan's Fisheries Agency said Sunday the fruits of Tokyo's research would help prove that sustainable whaling is possible.
"The scientific research we carry out will pave the way to overturning the moratorium on commercial whaling, which will better help us to utilize whale resources," Shuji Yamada told the ceremony.
The focus on this year's hunt is the humpback, which was in serious danger of extinction just a few decades ago. They are now a favorite of whale-watchers for their playful antics at sea, where the beasts -- which grow as large as 40 tons -- throw themselves out of the water.
Humpbacks feed, mate and give birth near shore, making them easy prey for whalers, who by some estimates depleted the global population to just 1,200 before the 1963 moratorium. The southern moratorium was followed by a worldwide ban in 1966.
Since then, only Greenland and the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have been allowed to catch humpbacks under an IWC aboriginal subsistence program. Each caught one humpback last year, according to the commission.
The American Cetacean Society estimates the humpback population has recovered to about 30,000-40,000 -- about a third of the number before modern whaling. The species is listed as "vulnerable" by the World Conservation Union.
Japanese fisheries officials insist the population has returned to a sustainable level and that taking 50 of them will have no impact.