Underwatertimes.com News Service - November 14, 2006 17:15 EST

The Government of Japan will tomorrow launch a fleet of six boats from Arukaport to commence a new season of whale hunting, despite a global moratorium and international outcry against commercial whaling. Japan’s self-allocated whaling quota permits its whalers to kill up to 935 minke and 10 endangered fin whales.

Japan’s whale hunt starts just weeks after Iceland resumed commercial whaling for the first time in 20 years. Seven fin whales and one minke whale were killed in Iceland since it resumed whaling on Oct. 17, 2006. Much of this whale meat has been frozen due to saturation in the market.

“Whales are under threat not only from those countries that still allow commercial whaling, but also by entanglement, pollution, ocean noise, ship strikes and global warming,” said Dr. Joth Singh, director of wildlife and habitat protection at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “Instead of stockpiling unwanted whale meat, IFAW urges these governments to focus instead on the tremendous global growth in whale watching – no blood needs to be shed.”

Japan hunts under the guise of “scientific” whaling, terminology that allows it to continue whaling despite a global ban on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986. In the 2005/2006 season Japan’s whalers killed 853 minke and 10 fin whales from the Antarctic. Next year Japan may also start hunting endangered humpback whales, with a self-allocated quota of 50.

“Even more shocking is the fact that this whale hunt takes place in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary around Antarctica, established by the IWC in 1994 as a safe haven for these majestic creatures,” said Dr. Singh. The Southern Ocean Sanctuary protects approximately 80% of the world’s whales, including some of those whose winter migrations support thriving multi-million dollar whale watching industries.

An IFAW-sponsored study found that over 100,000 people went whale watching in Japan in 1998, up from 10,992 in 1991. More than 95% of the whale and dolphin watchers in Japan were Japanese. Total expenditures for whale watching in Japan in 1998 was estimated at US$32,984,000.

Regional communities in Japan have profited from the whale watching industry, which provides new jobs and businesses including hotels, restaurants, museums, and shops. Ogata reached its 100,000th whale watcher in 2000 – at that time representing over 10 years of whale watching. In Ogasawara, where whale watching began in Japan in 1988, 1999 saw a new high with 12,000 whale watchers.

Fin whales are listed as “endangered” by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and are second only to the blue whale in terms of size – growing to average lengths of 18-22m and weights of 30-80 tons. They were hunted in significant numbers by whalers in the past, and their population figures are currently unknown. Minke whales are classified as “near threatened” by the IUCN, which cites numerous conservation threats including bycatch and whaling.

“There really is no humane way to kill a whale,” said IFAW scientist and whale expert Vassili Papastavrou. “Many whales that are harpooned sustain horrific injuries and suffer for a long time before eventually dying.” An IFAW analysis of Japanese whaling video footage obtained by Greenpeace concluded that the killing methods for Antarctic minke whales are inefficient and raise serious welfare issues concerning low instantaneous death rates, protracted times to death and the occurrence of asphyxiation as a secondary killing method. Fewer than one in five of the filmed whales were estimated to have died instantaneously.