Japan urged to recall whaling fleet
· Humpbacks hunted for first time since 1963
· 'Scientific' hunting claims disputed
· Campaigners accuse fleet of underhand tactics
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
Monday November 19, 2007
A humpback whale takes a dive. Photograph: Ormuzd Alves/AP
Among the targets of the hunt, which is being carried out in the name of scientific research, are 50 protected humpbacks.
The demand follows international protest at the fleet's departure yesterday. Britain is one of several other countries to have condemned the expedition, which will see humpbacks killed for the first time since they became a protected species more than 40 years ago.Helen Clark, the New Zealand prime minister, said the fleet should have stayed at home, and condemned the expedition as commercial whaling in the guise of scientific research.
In a TV interview, Clark said she hoped there would be no repeat of last year's clashes between the whalers and protesters, and indicated that New Zealand was not in a position to assist the Japanese fleet. "It is very difficult for us, as the nearest country with any sort of search and rescue capacity, to offer any help," she said.
"Of course, we don't like the Japanese whaling fleet being down there at all. It would just be better if the Japanese stayed home and didn't come down under the guise, the deception, the claim, that it is scientific whaling when they want to take 1,000 whales."
Under the 1986 International Whaling Commission's ban on commercial whaling, Japan is allowed to hunt whales for scientific research.
Japan says such research is vital to understanding the size of whale populations, the age and reproductive status of the creatures and the effects of environmental damage, but critics denounce it as commercial whaling in disguise. Most of the meat from the scientific hunts is sold to markets and restaurants, and the profits are used to fund future expeditions.
Japan has killed almost 10,500 whales, mainly minkes and Brydes, since the commercial ban was introduced. This year, the fleet expects to catch 835 minke whales and 50 endangered fin whales in its biggest scientific expedition yet. But most international anger is directed at plans to kill humpback whales for the first time since the species was protected in 1963.
Having dwindled to just 1,200 in the 1960s, the humpback population now stands at between 30,000 and 40,000, according to the American Cetacean Society. The species is listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union.
Known for their size, complex songs and athleticism, humpbacks are a favourite among the estimated 1.5 million whale-watchers, who watch them make their way along the Australian coast every year.
Alex Dower, the Australian foreign minister, said he was "deeply disappointed" with Japan's decision to go ahead with the hunt.
"The government again appeals to Japan to reconsider its position on this inhumane practice, which is also opposed by the majority of nations," he said.
Robert McClelland, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Labour party, suggested the Australian military could be dispatched to track the whalers if, as the polls indicate, Labour takes power in elections this weekend.
"We really need to rattle a cage here," he said. "It's unacceptable that it's not only going on but getting worse."
Britain is also considering making a "high-level diplomatic protest" to Japan, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Anti-whaling campaigners today accused the fleet of using underhand tactics after the vessels, led by the factory ship the Nisshin Maru, left port following a send-off from a brass band and flag-waving supporters.
Greenpeace said it had yet to locate the whaling vessels, which had sailed into international waters under cover of darkness after switching off their automated identification system, preventing other vessels from learning their location.
"They are operating by stealth, and we see that as a demonstration that that they don't want to be seen for what they are," Dave Walsh, a Greenpeace spokesman, told the Guardian from aboard the group's ship the Esperanza. "But we're confident we'll find them."
Walsh said the group would attempt to frustrate the whalers by positioning themselves between the whales and whalers and creating "walls" of water to bock the harpoonists' view of their prey.
"But we are also stepping up our campaign in Japan, because change will start there, not in the southern ocean," he added.
Greenpeace is understood to be seeking legal advice after Japanese officials repeatedly denounced it and other campaigners as terrorists.
In a speech at the weekend, the hunt's leader, Hajime Ishikawa, said: "They are violent environmental terrorists. Their violence is unforgivable ... We must fight against their hypocrisy and lies."
Last year's expedition was marred by clashes on the high seas between the whalers and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which favours direct action.
The hunt was abandoned in February after the Nisshin Maru caught fire, killing a crewman. The current expedition is expected to end in April.