Japan prepares to hunt humpbacks for first time since ’63

The Associated Press

A Japanese fleet will set sail Sunday on its largest whaling program yet in the South Pacific and break the moratorium set on hunting the famed humpback whale in 1963, the Fisheries Agency said Saturday.

Four ships led by the 8,044-ton Nisshin Maru will leave the port of Shimonoseki on Sunday morning, the agency said. Two observation boats left northern Japan on Wednesday.

The fleet has orders to kill up to 50 humpbacks — the first known large-scale hunt for the whales since the moratorium put them under international protection.

The 239-man mission will also cull up to 935 Antarctic minke whales and up to 50 fin whales in Japan’s largest scientific whale hunt, which will last through mid-April, the Fisheries Agency said.

But it is Tokyo’s plans to hunt the humpback — a favorite among whale-watchers for its distinctive knobby head, intelligence and out-of-the-water acrobatics — that has triggered condemnation from environmentalists.

“These whales don’t have to die,” said Junichi Sato, a spokesman for the environmentalist group Greenpeace in Tokyo. “Humpbacks are very sensitive and live in close-knit pods. So even one death can be extremely damaging,” he said.

Humpback whales have been off-limits since 1963, except for a small number caught under a subsistence whaling program by the semiautonomous Danish territory of Greenland and the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Last year, they caught one humpback each, according to the International Whaling Commission.

The former Soviet Union also hunted some humpbacks until 1973 in defiance of the ban, though it remains unclear how many they took.

Scientists say humpback whales are complex creatures that communicate through long, complex “songs.” Measuring 12 to 15 meters and weighing 25 to 40 tons, they are extremely acrobatic, often throwing themselves out of the water, swimming on their backs with both flippers in the air, or slapping the water with their tail or flippers.

The American Cetacean Society estimates the global humpback population at 30,000 to 40,000, about a third of the levels seen before modern whaling. The species is listed as “vulnerable” by the World Conservation Union.

But Japanese fisheries officials insist that both the humpback and fin populations — estimated at up to 60,000 — are back to sustainable levels. “Humpback whales in our research area are rapidly recovering,” said Hideki Moronuki, whaling chief at the Fisheries Agency. “Taking 50 humpbacks from a population of tens of thousands will have no significant impact whatsoever.”

Moronuki says killing whales allows marine biologists to study their internal organs. Ovaries provide vital clues to reproductive systems, earwax indicates age, and stomach contents reveal eating habits, he said.

Meat from Japan’s scientific catch is sold commercially, as permitted by the IWC, but Japanese officials deny that profits are a goal.

Japan also argues that whaling is a Japanese tradition dating back to the early 1600s, and has pushed unsuccessfully at the IWC to reverse its 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.

Environmentalists, however, blast Japan’s research program as a pretext for keeping the tiny whaling industry alive.