Japanese whalers set out today on a quest to hunt more than 1000 whales, including 50 endangered humpback whales.
A party atmosphere, complete with brass bands and beer toasts by the boat crews, accompanied the sailing of Japan’s whaling fleet. Three whalers were accompanied by a large factory ship, which will process and pack the meat of whales. The hunt will last until April. Scientists deny the trip is about the whale meat, however, and say that their research is necessary to understand the whales.
Japan is facing increased pressure internationally, as well as from traditional anti-whaling and environmental groups., which have vowed to interrupt the hunt. There are fears the fleet may target a real live Moby Dick. Some believe the whalers will target Migaloo, the world’s only known white humpback whale.
The battle rages in the media. Hideki Moronuki, whaling chief at the Fisheries Agency, said: “Humpback whales in our research area are rapidly recovering. Taking 50 humpbacks from a population of tens of thousands will have no significant impact.”
Junichi Sato, a spokesman for Greenpeace Japan, responded: “This is not about research. Most of the whale meat will end up in Japanese pubs and supermarkets. The biggest issue here is nationalistic pride. The Japanese government refuses to give it up because of criticism from outside the country.” Greenpeace Japan will send a ship to follow the whalers.
Greenpeace is using its ship Esperanza, to search for the fleet as it heads towards the Southern Ocean where they will attempt to intercept whales on their annual migratory path.
“It’s a large ocean, but we’re going to track them down,” said spokesman Dave Walsh.
Greenpeace claims the fleet had turned off radio transponders that signal its location but this has been denied by the Japanese who launched their own assault on the protestors.
At a farewell ceremony for the expedition the head of the mission said Japan should not give in to the demands of whaling opponents and criticised environmental groups’ tactics.
“They’re violent environmental terrorists,” Hajime Ishikawa said to a crowd on the dock in a send-off ceremony. “Their violence is unforgivable… We must fight against their hypocrisy and lies.”
The global humpback whale population is estimated at 30,000 to 40,000, about a third of levels seen before modern whaling.
But Japanese fisheries officials insist both humpback and fin populations – estimated at up to 60,000 – are back to sustainable levels.
Robbie Marsland, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) UK, said whaling was “inherently cruel”.
“Our scientists have analysed footage of Japanese whaling which shows whales taking over half an hour to die a very slow and agonising death,” he said.
“Killing endangered whales for products that nobody needs is beneath the dignity of a great nation like Japan.
“It’s time for Japan to put away the harpoons and join the emerging global consensus for whale conservation in the 21st century.”