Killing whales ‘wrong way’ to learn

A New Zealand and Australian team researching whales in the Southern Ocean has strongly criticised Japan’s slaughter of the mammals and will deliver that message to the International Whaling Commission in June.

The Antarctic Whale Expedition – the world’s largest non-lethal whale research team – returned to New Zealand yesterday after a six-week trip aboard the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research vessel Tangaroa.

Sixteen scientists, mainly from Australia and New Zealand, led the 13-country project that included using 30 satellite tags on humpback whales – the first time this has been done in that part of the Southern Ocean.

It is hoped the IWC-approved research will reveal more information about feeding grounds, migratory routes and whether whales from different breeding grounds mix when they feed.

Expedition science leader Nick Gales, who heads the Australian Marine Mammal Centre, said the success of the trip showed Japan’s slaughter of whales was the wrong way to go about researching the wrong thing.

“We’ve gone through the IWC and collectively worked out the research needed to effectively manage and conserve whale populations and how to address those research needs.

“There are some things you can only answer if you kill a whale – if you want to weigh a liver of a whale, you need to kill it. But you need to work out what information you need to know and it’s much more about their movements, population structure, numbers, how they live and interact with their environment. Those are the questions we are answering using non-lethal techniques.”

Dr Gales, who will address the science committee at the IWC meeting in Morocco in June, said Japan’s killing of whales did not address the main issues.

“The key question is whether it’s important research for conservation and management, and against that measure we would certainly argue very strongly that Japan’s information is not contributing …

“Killing whales and pulling them up on the deck and measuring various parts of the dead whale really is not the type of science that the IWC requires.”

Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett, who is a strong opponent of Japan’s whale-hunting practices, endorsed the project as effective research without the need to kill any whales.

Australia has given Japan until November to end its Antarctic whaling or face action at the International Court of Justice.

The Tangaroa scientists used small 6m-long boats to tag humpback whales up to 17m long, in ocean swells and temperatures with a wind factor of -15C.

They also used dart guns to extract whale tissue and blubber, which provide DNA samples and can reveal dietary habits.