Japan Whalers off to Hunt Humpbacks

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18th November 2007

TOKYO (AFP) — Japan’s whaling fleet set off Sunday towards the Antarctic Ocean for a hunt that will include famed humpback whales for the first time, defying Western protests that the move will inflame tensions.

Japan argues that whale populations have recovered enough to allow a managed catch, but militant environmentalists have vowed in turn to “hunt the whalers” to save the humpbacks. The six-vessel fleet took off from the western port of Shimonoseki for its five-month voyage led by the 8,044-tonne Nisshin Maru, which has been repaired since a fire that forced Japan to cut short its last Antarctic hunt.

“Although we are subjected to vicious blocking tactics by environmental groups, we have to continue this into the future,” team leader Hajima Ishikawa told a departure ceremony, as quoted by Kyodo News.

The environmental movement Greenpeace said that its Esperanza ship is waiting outside Japanese coastal waters and will track the whalers in Antarctic waters, shooting video footage to show the public.”The threatened humpbacks targeted by the whalers are part of thriving whale watching industries elsewhere,” Greenpeace expedition leader Karli Thomas said in a statement issued aboard the Esperanza.
“The whaling fleet must be recalled now. If it is not, we will take direct, non-violent action to stop the hunt.”

Japan kills more than 1,000 whales a year in the Antarctic and also the Pacific Ocean using a loophole in a 1986 international moratorium that allows catching whales for research. Only Norway and Iceland defy the moratorium outright. This year, Japan is expanding the catch to harpoon 50 humpback whales, which are celebrated for their complex songs and acrobatic displays. The expedition also plans to kill 50 fin whales — the world’s second largest animal after blue whales—as well as 850 smaller minke whales.

It will be the first time that Japan has hunted humpback whales since an international moratorium on the species took effect in 1966 due to over hunting. The former Soviet Union also defied the moratorium through the 1980s.

Western conservationists say that humpback and fin whale populations are still vulnerable. Australia has warned that killing humpbacks would seriously worsen an already bitter feud with Japan on whaling.

Humpbacks migrate northwards along Australia’s coast to breed each year. Their slow and majestic progression draws some 1.5 million whale watchers annually, pumping an estimated 225 million US dollars into Australia’s economy.”It’s important that Japan understands that the inclusion of humpbacks will have an impact on perceptions of Japan in Australia,” Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull said earlier this year. Japan counters that Western nations are insensitive to its culture and that whale populations are recovering. Japan makes no secret that the whale meat goes onto dinner plates and also says that “lethal research” helps keep data on the giant mammals.

“Japan’s research makes a valuable contribution to the management of Antarctic whale species to ensure that any future commercial whaling regime is robust and sustainable to provide a reliable food source for generations to come,” Minoru Morimoto, head of the government-backed Institute of Cetacean Research, said last week.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a hardline splinter group of Greenpeace, denounced Japan as “viciously cruel” for hunting humpbacks. Sea Shepherd has pledged to stop the whalers in “Operation Migaloo,” named after an elusive albino humpback beloved in Australia.”As the relentless Japanese whalers seek to hunt down and kill Migaloo and his family, Sea Shepherd will be hunting the whalers with the firm objective of intervention against their illegal activities,” a Sea Shepherd statement said. During the last Antarctic hunt, Sea Shepherd activists tracking the fleet hurled bottles of chemicals at the fleet in an attempt to disrupt operations, leading Japan to label them “terrorists.”

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