Aussie, NZ scientists prep for whale research trek

Maideline Sanchez

From the Associated Press by Kristen Gelineau

SYDNEY – Scientists from Australia and New Zealand are to set out on a whale research expedition to the Antarctic on Monday in an effort to disprove Japan’s argument that whales must be killed to be studied.
The results of the six-week expedition are central to the whaling debate because Japan is allowed to kill whales provided it’s for research. Still, no matter what the outcome, both sides acknowledge it will likely do little to change Japan’s support for whaling.
“You can always come up with some question that will require an animal to be killed for something or other,” said Nick Gales, the expedition’s chief scientist and leader of the Australian Antarctic Division’s Australian Marine Mammal Center. “But the question is whether that is a critical issue for the management and conservation of whales.”
Japan is permitted to hunt whales in Antarctica under what it says is a scientific program allowed by the International Whaling Commission, despite a 1986 ban on commercial whaling. Japan sends a whaling fleet to the Antarctic each year to hunt hundreds of mostly minke whales, which are not an endangered species. Whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan, which critics say is the real reason for the hunts.
Last year, several anti-whaling nations came together to form the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, an effort to promote non-lethal whale research in the hopes of eventually seeking an IWC ban on whaling for scientific study. Several countries including Brazil, Italy and the United States have signed onto the partnership, which has scheduled a series of research expeditions.
Monday’s voyage is the group’s first, and will take the scientists from the New Zealand capital, Wellington, to the Ross Sea off Antarctica, where Japan’s annual hunt is also ongoing. There, the researchers will use darts to remove bits of tissue for biopsy sampling and will conduct satellite tracking and acoustic surveys to collect data on the movement of whales, population genetics and how the creatures interact with the sea ice ecosystem.
Gales said he’s confident his team can prove that whales don’t need to be killed to be studied. But he acknowledges Japan will likely continue to argue that fatal testing is necessary, no matter what the findings.
Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research, which overseas the annual Japanese hunt, says there are many critical pieces of information about whales that can only be achieved by killing the animals.
Such information includes age data, which is determined by studying the whale’s ear bone, and reproductive data, which requires the examination of a whale’s uterus — tests that would be impossible to perform on a live whale, said Glenn Inwood, the New Zealand-based spokesman for the Japanese institute.
Inwood said he has no doubt that the Australia and New Zealand researchers will conclude from their expedition that whales can be studied without killing them. But that won’t change the difference in opinions on the subject between Japan and anti-whalers, he said.
“What it comes down to is a different philosophical point of view,” Inwood said. “If you don’t want to hunt whales at all, you are going to be able to achieve the data you want and say you can get a lot of data with non-lethal research. If you want to hunt whales in a manner that is purely sustainable, then you’re going to need data that can only be obtained through lethal research.”
While the non-lethal expedition aims to discredit Japan’s whaling claims, other conservation groups take more direct action by confronting and harassing the Japanese fleet.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which sends ships to Antarctica each season to try to stop the hunt, has mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the expedition.
While the voyage is a positive step in the fight against whaling, it still doesn’t go far enough, said Sea Shepherd Deputy CEO Chuck Swift.
“I unfortunately am not optimistic about Japan doing the right thing in this case,” Swift told The Associated Press by satellite phone from the Antarctic, where his group is still pursuing the whalers — an effort portrayed on the Animal Planet TV series “Whale Wars.” “If we want to effect change and get the Japanese illegal whaling operations to shut down, we need to do things like direct intervention.”
This season’s confrontation between the group and the whalers has been particularly aggressive, with the conservationists losing one of their ships in a collision with a whaling vessel. Both sides blamed each other for the crash, which occurred as the Sea Shepherd’s Ady Gil harassed the Japanese fleet.
Despite the escalating tension between both sides, Gales refuses to give up hope that Japan will one day reconsider the necessity of the hunt.
“We sincerely hope that Japan will be a part of this research partnership,” he said. “In time.”