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Hungry Whaling Ships Set Sail

By Stephen Leahy*

Japanese hunters in the Southern Ocean, around Antarctica, will kill nearly a thousand whales, some in danger of extinction. Activists will try to stop the whaling ships, by sea and by air.

TORONTO, Dec 26 (Tierramérica) - Japan's controversial whaling fleet has arrived in the Southern Ocean, around Antarctica, and anti-whaling activists are promising to ram and sink any vessels attempting to kill whales.

"What the Japanese whalers are doing is illegal under the United Nations World Charter for Nature," said Paul Watson founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

"It's also murder in my personal opinion," Watson told Tierramérica from Melbourne, Australia, where his ship, the Farley Mowat, was docked.

Watson has claimed to have sunk 10 whaling vessels over the past 20 years. In the next few days the Farley Mowat and another Sea Shepherd vessel will use a helicopter and ultra-lite aircraft to locate and attempt to stop the Japanese hunters from killing whales.

Greenpeace, the global environmental watchdog, is also sending two ships to document and harass the whaling fleet.

By claiming that the 935 minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and 10 endangered fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) they hope to kill are to be used for scientific purposes, the Japanese skirt a 1986 global prohibition on commercial whaling and the fact that most of the Southern Ocean has been designated as an international whale sanctuary,

International marine scientists say Japan has used the science clause since 1987 as a pretext to continue selling, and eating whale meat.

"Whaling nations say they are killing whales for scientific purposes, but often the sample sizes of depleted species are too small to answer serious scientific questions," says Bruce Mate, director of the marine mammal program at Oregon State University in northwestern United States.

"As all the whales also end up going to market, many folks see scientific whaling as a means of keeping the business of commercial whaling going during the moratorium," Mate told Tierramérica.

Ironically, the Japanese general public is not particularly interested in eating whale meat, said Beatriz Bugeda, the International Fund for Animal Welfare's director for Latin America.

Iceland resumed limited commercial whaling this northern hemisphere autumn, and has freezers full of whale meat that even the Japanese don't want, Bugeda told Tierramérica from Mexico City.

"There is no market for whale meat. Whales are worth far more alive than dead," she said.

Whale watching is huge industry worldwide, and especially along the Pacific coasts of North America and Latin America.

In the Latin American tourist sector, whale-watching is growing exponentially, according to Bugeda. It has become a very important source of income for many coastal villages in Mexico, Chile and other countries. It is often the only source of income where fishing has declined, she said.

A number of whale species live and breed along the Pacific coast of the Americas, and their numbers are slowly increasing thanks to the ban on commercial whaling.

Baja California, Mexico, is the main breeding area of the Pacific gray whale, which has now reached an estimated population of about 25,000. Its historical population peak may have been ten times that, or more.

New DNA methods of analysis have shown whales were far more plentiful than previously believed.

Steve Palumbi at Stanford University in the western U.S. state of California has shown that humpback whales may have numbered 1.5 million before commercial whaling began -- far more than the 100,000 experts had believed existed. Today there are about 20,000 humpbacks left in the world, with a large number along the Pacific coast.

The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), at more than 30 meters long and 175 tons, is believed to be the largest animal to have lived on Earth. Once abundant throughout the world's oceans there are perhaps 12,000 left, with 25 percent of these found along the Mexico-California coastline.

"There was a time when scientists thought blues were so few they wouldn't be able to find each other to reproduce," says Mate, a blue whale expert.

Records show that between 330,000 and 360,000 blue whales were killed in Antarctic waters alone in the 20th century. There might be 1,000 of these endangered animals left in the Southern Ocean today, he said.

Given this scarcity, Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete of the Universidad Austral de Chile received worldwide attention for his documentation of a new feeding and breeding ground for blue whales in the Corcovado Gulf, near the southern Chilean island of Chiloé in 2003.

As many as 150 blues have been sighted there, and a marine and coastal protected area has been proposed for the region. Protecting critical habitat is crucial to the recovery of all whales, says Mate, who has worked with Hucke-Gaete to tag blues whales in the Corcovado Gulf.

And recovery is many decades if not a century into the future for many whale populations, he says.

Over the next three months, Japanese whalers will be chasing the relatively small six- to seven-ton minke whale in the Southern Ocean.

Actual minke population numbers are not known and remain controversial -- perhaps 175,000 to 200,000 in the region, though Japan cites 1988 data suggesting there are 750,000 minkes.

Adding to whaling controversy this year is new data on the intelligence of whales.

Whales not only have the largest brains, scientists at the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology have found spindle cells in the brains of large whales. Believed to play an important role in experiencing love and emotions, spindle cells had previously only been found in the brains of humans and the great apes.

"I think they are more intelligent than we are, certainly in terms of their ability to live in harmony with their environment," says the Sea Shepherd's Watson.

Since no nation will act to prevent what he calls the illegal and immoral killing of whales, Watson and his volunteers will do what they can to protect the whales, including ramming the whaling ships.

"We're not going out there to hang banners and take pictures."

* Stephen Leahy is an IPS correspondent.

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. All Rights Reserved


External Links

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

United Nations World Charter for Nature

International Fund for Animal Welfare - America Latina

Oregon State University Marine Mammal Program

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