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The scientists and the whales

In the early days of January, the deep and chilly waters off the coast of Antarctica played host to a bitter confrontation between two old foes. As storm clouds rolled overhead, the crew of Japan's scientific whaling fleet found themselves battling once again with members of the environmental group Greenpeace, who had tracked them down with the intention of doing everything they could to stop their killing of whales. Videos of the encounters show the Japanese ships - two obs

By | March 1, 2006

In the early days of January, the deep and chilly waters off the coast of Antarctica played host to a bitter confrontation between two old foes. As storm clouds rolled overhead, the crew of Japan's scientific whaling fleet found themselves battling once again with members of the environmental group Greenpeace, who had tracked them down with the intention of doing everything they could to stop their killing of whales.

Videos of the encounters show the Japanese ships - two observation ships, three whale "sampling vessels," and a research ship base where the animals are cut up (dubbed the "factory ship" by the environmentalists) - replete with "RESEARCH" stenciled on the side in big white letters. As the Japanese crews go about their business, activists in small inflatable craft play a game of cat and mouse, harassing the bigger vessels, trying to position themselves between the whales and the men wielding the explosive harpoons. The Japanese ships, meanwhile, spray the activists with water cannons. On at least two occasions, ships from opposing sides collide. "We want to stop them killing these individual whales and hope that through doing that they will be shamed out of doing it altogether," says Greenpeace International's John Frizell.

It isn't the first time Greenpeace has adopted this tactic, but this year the actions of the activists infuriated Hiroshi Hatanaka, director of Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research. He wrote an open letter to the environmental organization, saying its actions bordered on piracy, and threatening legal action. Frizell, however, says the activists stay strictly within nonviolent parameters. "Our crews are in small inflatable boats, racing in front of steel-hulled ships armed with harpoons," he says. "There is no way we are endangering their lives or welfare in any way."

According to the International Whaling Committee, the Japanese whaling fleet is doing nothing that contravenes the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. The Committee set a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, but under Article VIII of the convention, any member government can issue a special permit allowing whales to be killed for scientific purposes. The convention even requires that the animal be utilized once scientific data have been collected.

Before 1982, governments including Canada, the United States, USSR, and South Africa had issued more than 100 permits. But in recent years, Japan has been the only country to issue scientific permits, despite sustained pressure from the international community to stop. This outcry has been particularly strong since much of Japan's catch takes place in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, which was defined by the International Whaling Commission in 1994.

Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research argues that "lethal sampling" of whales is the only way to gather certain types of information. On its Web site, the institute says the stomachs, ovaries, and earplugs of dead whales are vital sources of data on feeding, reproduction, and the age of whales. Its latest whale research plan includes an annual sample of about 850 Antarctic minke whales, 50 humpbacks, and 50 fin whales.

Scientists and environmental activists aren't always the best of friends, but in the case of Japanese scientific whaling, they are in a sense united against a common foe, says Peter Harrison, director of the Southern Cross University Whale Research Center in Australia. "We're on the same side, in that scientists want the Japanese to stop calling it science."

"My view, and the view of scientists around the world, is that there's no longer any need to kill whales to obtain vital biological information," Harrison says. While very useful data were gathered from the carcasses of whales killed during the days of commercial whaling, these days, molecular techniques and others have supplanted lethal research.

The research being reported by Japanese whale scientists has been criticized by other researchers as lacking rigor and detail, says Harrison. "You're really not dealing with credible science. It's commercial whaling in the guise of science."

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