The eating habits of whales are changing and are likely to affect the fishery industry, according to the head of Japan’s “research whaling” fleet, which returned to port Thursday.

“Whales’ eating habits seem to be changing. . . . We need to take a harder look at their impact on fisheries,” Yoshihiro Fujise said in an interview with Kyodo News.

Fujise headed the research whaling fleet that returned to Japan on Thursday morning with a catch of 88 whales from its hunt, between Aug. 1 and Sept. 16.

Japan’s contentious research whaling operation this year, which was expanded to cover Bryde’s whales and sperm whales, has triggered moves toward sanctions by the United States.

Fujise, who is director of the research division at the Institute of Cetacean Research, said it used to be thought that minke whales eat mainly Pacific saury, but the latest research found that they are now eating lots of squid and Alaska pollack along the coast.

“Given that minke whales eat lots of squid, we need to examine carefully its impact on squid fisheries,” Fujise said.

He also said the latest research found that many Bryde’s whales are eating anchovies in areas where bonitos are gathering, indicating that bonito stocks could also be affected because bonitos feed on anchovies.

Fujise said there are signs that populations of large whales, such as sulphur-bottom whales, are recovering.

Commenting on criticism from abroad against Japan’s research whaling, Fujise said the U.S. erroneously designated sperm whales as a protected species, although there are estimated to be as many as 100,000 sperm whales in the Northwest Pacific.

“We want them to have a better understanding. We need to continue our research whaling so we get to know more about conditions surrounding whales,” he claimed.

The U.S. announced last week a decision to deny Japan access to fishing rights in U.S. waters, accusing Japan of undermining global efforts to preserve whale populations.

The U.S. took issue with Japan’s decision to expand its whale hunt to include Bryde’s and sperm whales, which are protected under U.S. law. Japan’s research whaling had been limited to minke whales until this year.

Japan gave up commercial whaling in compliance with an international moratorium that took effect in 1986, but has carried out what it calls research whaling since 1987.

It claims that whaling for research purposes is permitted under the rules of the International Whaling Commission. The meat from the catch ends up on tables in Japan.

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