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Australia counting whales before Japanese hunt in the Antarctic

December 16, 2007|Rob Taylor | Reuters

CANBERRA — Australian researchers have begun an aerial count of whales in the Antarctic ahead of the yearly Japanese hunt as Australia's government mulls a legal challenge to halt the yearly slaughter.

A team from the new Australian Centre for Applied Marine Mammal Science will spend several weeks flying over 58,000 square miles of pack ice off eastern Antarctica to count minke whales.

"Ships can't survey through the ice. On a big icebreaker, it's a bit like trying to count birds in the jungle by driving a bulldozer through -- they scatter," expedition leader Nick Gales, from the Australian Antarctic Division, told the Age newspaper.

Japan's whaling fleet plans to hunt 935 minke whales, 50 fin whales and, for the first time in 40 years, 50 humpback whales over the Antarctic summer. The fleet is on its way south, followed by anti-whaling activists.

Humpbacks were hunted nearly to extinction until protected by the International Whaling Commission in 1966. There is an exception for hunting done for research, which is what the Japanese say they are doing, although meat from the catch will be sold commercially.

Australia is a strong opponent of whaling and the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, will decide within days whether to send a navy ship and long-range aircraft south to gather evidence for a case against Japan in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Rudd's center-left Labor government has pushed sending warships beyond Australian waters into the country's self-proclaimed Antarctic territory, which is not recognized by other nations and which includes a whale sanctuary.

Japan's fisheries agency, confident its whaling rights will be confirmed, has challenged any country to take it to the court for a binding judgment.

Australian international law specialist Don Rothwell warned earlier this year that naval patrols would breach the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which deemed Antarctica to be a demilitarized zone, and possibly spark an international incident.

The researchers say the aerial count will provide the first accurate measure of the number of whales living in pack ice as debate rages over Japan's research-whaling program.

The last official count of Antarctic minke whales was completed nearly 20 years ago and put the population at 860,000. Gales said that number could have been halved by now.

Japan has long resisted pressure to stop whaling, insisting that whaling is a cherished cultural tradition. Its fleet has killed 7,000 Antarctic minkes over the last 20 years.

The meat, which under commission rules must be sold for consumption, ends up in supermarkets and restaurants, but the appetite for what is now a delicacy is fading.

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