Fleet targets 860 whales in annual Antarctic hunt

by Eric Talmadge

The Associated Press

Japan’s research whaling fleet is planning to kill 850 minke and 10 fin whales on its annual hunt in the Antarctic, according to the Fisheries Agency.

The six-ship fleet left Wednesday from Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to begin this year’s hunt, the agency said.

It said the fleet has a target of 850 minke whales, a relatively small and plentiful species, along with 10 of the fin species, which is larger and more rare. It will return next April.

The world’s biggest consumer of seafood, Japan is strongly opposed to the global ban on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission 20 years ago.

Though the stated primary objective of the fleet is researching the populations, feeding and breeding habits of whales, the meat from the catch is distributed commercially, with proceeds cycled back to pay for the cost of the program.

Many environmental groups claim the research program is merely an excuse to keep whale meat on the market, a charge the Fisheries Agency denies. Data from the research are used by the IWC’s scientific committee to gauge whale stocks.

While the government-backed fleet continues to set sail each year, the whaling industry has all but vanished. Once a common part of the Japanese diet, whale is now an expensive delicacy, though it is easy to find cans of whale meat at most large supermarkets.

There have been reports, however, that consumer demand for whale has fallen off, in part over fears of the mammals’ high mercury levels.

Even so, the government plans to catch 1,070 minke whales in 2006, as well as a total of 170 Bryde’s, sei, sperm and fin whales.

This year, 35 whales have already been caught off Hokkaido in a 42-day expedition. That catch was well below the 60 allowed under the coastal program, which like the Antarctic hunts is authorized by the International Whaling Commission.

The small catch was blamed on bad weather. Other reports, however, suggested the small haul was due to the decline in the smaller fish the targeted whale species feed on.