Five Japanese whaling ships left the southern port of Shimonoseki 7 November 2003 to catch an estimated 410 Minke whales as part of this year's Japanese Antarctic science programme. The flotilla included the 7,638-ton Nisshinmaru mother ship and will be at sea until April 2004.

The spokesman of the Japanese Fisheries Agency, Shuji Sato, said the purpose of the expedition was research, and that the data collected would be reported to the International Whaling Commission for use in whale population studies.

This is Japan's 17th season of Antarctic whaling since 1987, one year after the International Whaling Commission initiated a moratorium on commercial whaling, but allowed limited catches for scientific purposes.

Anti-whaling critics, including the United States, Britain and Australia, say that the Japanese programme is commercial whaling in disguise because, though complying with IWC rules, much of the whale meat ends up in restaurants.

Japan is one of the world's largest consumers of whale meat, which is considered a delicacy in that country. The Japanese government is believed to sell the meat from research catches at local fish markets, and uses the proceeds to pay for their US$37 million annual research programme.

Greenpeace has aggressively opposed Japanese whaling on the high seas, while conservation scientists have questioned the need to kill the whales when tissue samples could be acquired by other, less traumatic means.

Greenpeace has aggressively opposed Japanese whaling on the high seas, while conservation scientists have questioned the need to kill the whales when tissue samples could be acquired by other, less traumatic means. In its new form, the IWC would concentrate on finding ways of limiting the 300,000 whale and dolphin deaths each year due to being drowned in fishing nets, as well as ways of reducing whale collisions, harmful pollution and ipitiating a regulation of the growing whale watching industry.

Some major conservation groups backing the changes say that limited commercial whaling is still an option provided it is sustainable.

They would like to see IWC maintain a register of the DNA of every whale caught as a means of authenticating legal whale meat on the market. Whalers, however, want their own DNA database and are opposed to neutral "observers" being present on their whaling ships, a view that conservationists will strongly oppose.

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