Stormy seas for Migaloo and friends
Japan is eyeing off humpback and fin whales now that their numbers have grown.
Environment Feature – Whale Watching Article SMH by Andrew Darby April 20, 2005
Migaloo Albino Whale White Whale sightings East Coast NSW Australia Like the most fabled of whales, Migaloo is elusive. The “white fella” has been seen many times off the east coast of Australia over the past 15 years, but has also disappeared for up to three years at a time. So when the whale researcher Daniel Burns heard too late that the world’s only totally white humpback had passed Cape Byron on a northward migration last June, his disappointment was real.
“You get a lot of reports from people who think they’ve seen Migaloo, but it’s not him,” Burns says. “I’d had a few close calls, but I’d never seen him.”
A few months later, Migaloo turned up again, this time on his southward migration. Burns was in a launch off Byron when an observer from the Southern Cross University whale research centre called and told him Migaloo could be a few kilometres away, off Lennox Head.
“We were able to get close enough to see it was Migaloo. He surfaced a few times with another humpback, and then they both went down for a long time. All of a sudden the other humpback breached, and 10 seconds later Migaloo breached about 30 metres away.”
Many types of whales breach – or make an explosive leap out of the ocean, crashing down again in spray. The humpback does it best. Wing-like pectoral fins make a 35-tonne animal seem ready to take flight. Migaloo’s breach was special. “He’s really striking,” Burns says. “Even when he’s under water you can see him from some distance away. He seems icy blue.”
Migaloo Albino Whale White Humpback whale watching Port Stephens NSW North East Coast Australia Like most humpbacks near the Australian east coast, Migaloo was probably headed south to Antarctic waters to feed on krill swarms. There, the whales are joined at the annual summer binge by other cetaceans, including fin whales, the second-biggest on Earth after the blue. Few people have a chance to see a fin, a whale of the remote deep ocean. I shared a glimpse once aboard an icebreaker off eastern Antarctica. It blew across our bow like a sleek railway locomotive puffing steam. Its track was marked by smooth “lakes” left behind on the calm sea surface where it had risen to breathe – the prints of a giant.
Last century commercial whalers hunted parental stocks of these two species to the furthest corners of the oceans. They have lived in the Antarctic, safe from the harpoon, since the countries of the International Whaling Commission agreed on a moratorium that halted whaling in 1986.
Japan wants to start taking them again in a plan to be unveiled at the annual meeting of the commission, in Ulsan, South Korea, in June. Small numbers could be harpooned initially, alongside a greatly expanded minke quota in Japan’s Antarctic “scientific research” program. At about eight tonnes, the minke used to be considered too small to be useful in the commercial whaling era, but it is numerous enough to be targeted for the past 16 years by the world’s only factory whaling fleet.
Last month this Japanese fleet wound up a research program that had taken more than 7000 Antarctic minkes. Its value to science still disputed, the program operated under a clause in the commission’s governing convention that lets each member country issue its scientific permits – including for lethal research. Maximum use is demanded of byproducts. The whale meat is sold, keeping the industry alive in Japan.
This month the fleet is hunting minkes in the North Pacific, at the start of a program that will also take bryde, sei and sperm whales. Next southern summer it will head south to Antarctica again. Japan has shown greater interest in fins and humpbacks since the whaling commission’s last meeting, when its scientists said surveys showed their numbers had rocketed ahead in the Antarctic. At that meeting, Japan also said the Antarctic minke could sustain a yearly commercial hunt of 2900.
As the old Antarctic program ended last month, Japan’s government-run Institute of Cetacean Research claimed to have been surprised by the rapid growth in populations of Antarctic fin and humpback whales. The new program will “take into account” the shift in population, the whaling commission said.
Whaling industry sources and media reports in Japan say it wants to kill about 800 Antarctic minkes each summer, double the previous number. It could take humpbacks from about 2007, probably starting with about 10, and building numbers. But first, perhaps as soon as next summer, it will start hunting fin whales.
“Which whale species has the best flavour?” asks Japan’s alternate commissioner at the commission, Masayuki Komatsu, in his book The History and Science of Whales. The nail-hard negotiator who famously called minkes “cockroaches of the sea” checked the menu options, and concluded that of all whales, fin tasted best. “Fin whale meat is a luxury only offered to Greenland Inuit people, who are allowed to catch fin whales under the category of aboriginal subsistence whaling by the IWC,” he noted.
Nearly 20 years after the global moratorium halted commercial whaling, the Japanese research program is tightening pressure on the 60-nation whaling commission to sanction it again. This has its challenges for Japan. It must escalate marketing of what conservationists say is a heavily subsidised product. And its whalers would have to re-learn how to kill whales the size of a train in a world where there is greater pressure for humane killing.
Australia’s Environment Minister, Ian Campbell, describes Japan’s exploitation of the scientific whaling loophole as an outrage, and says Australia would fight any return to the “bad old days” of commercial whaling. A bloc of countries in the commission, mainly European, also refuses to countenance whaling. The United States, however, is moving to end a long stalemate over a plan known as the Revised Management Scheme to sustainably manage commercial whaling. Since the last meeting, the US has chaired talks aimed at breaking the impasse and completing the plan in what it describes as a “timely fashion”.
Sue Arnold, of Australians for Animals, believes the Bush Administration has shifted to a policy of appeasement with Japan over whales. After returning recently from Washington, Arnold said: “Ramifications of the US support for the RMS are appalling … An unholy alliance between the US, Norway and Japan will see whales once again become the target of a bloody and cruel slaughter.”
Numbers in the commission are finely balanced, despite Japan’s pursuit of a voting majority among Third World countries reliant on aid. The sub-Saharan state of Mali and the Pacific nation Kiribati are members expected to vote with whalers at the Ulsan meeting. Pro-conservation nations have recruited the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The Government’s problem is that even if anti-whaling nations hold the line at the commission, “Australia’s whales” will still be in the sights of Japanese harpoons. The fleet will keep on hunting in Antarctic waters claimed by Australia, where it has already taken hundreds of minkes.
Last year the Humane Society International sought a Federal Court injunction to stop the whaling company Kyodo Sempaku from killing whales in these territorial waters. The court’s decision is yet to be handed down. The Government refused the court’s invitation to join the case, saying it would be against Australia’s long-term interests to provoke the international dispute that Tokyo said would follow.
Japan does not recognise the Australian Antarctic Territory, or its 200-nautical-mile offshore Exclusive Economic Zone. Most sensitively, there are also the humpbacks. They are the mainstay of a national whale- and dolphin-watching industry said by the International Fund for Animal Welfare to be worth about $273 million.
Frank Future, an industry spokesman, fears he knows which humpbacks would be harpooned first in Antarctica. “In Iceland they found when they went whaling again that the whalers went for the ones more comfortable around boats.”
Last winter, Migaloo swam alongside the boat of the Tweed Heads whale-watch operator Wayne Marsh for the second year in a row. The white whale rolled on his side to look curiously up at the people. “He turned the blue water around him jade green for two or three metres,” Marsh said.
“To see Migaloo was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To see him twice is a real blessing. I think my guests would see whaling again for humpbacks with total horror.”
Related SMH Whale Article
Numbers matter, although it’s fiercely disputed
Article By Andrew Darby April 20, 2005
Norway is the only country that conducts commercial whaling legally, because it has not agreed to the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium. This week Norwegian fishermen began their hunt for a quota of 797 minke whales in the North Atlantic.
In the Antarctic, there is evidence that some whale numbers are rapidly recovering from last century’s badly managed slaughter. But population sizes are fiercely disputed by scientists at the International Whaling Commission.
Minkes: Japan argues that under a return to commercial whaling it could sustainably kill 14,570 minke whales over five years. It relies on a long-standing population estimate of about 760,000. Australian scientists believe there may be as few as half that number.
Humpbacks: The coastal migrations of the cosmopolitan humpback make counting easier, and they appear to be reviving rapidly. The east Australian stock, hunted down to as few as 200, was growing at about 11 per cent a year and now stands at about 7000, says the Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre. The West Australian coast has double this.
Fins: If there is any continuing Japanese appetite for fin meat, it’s because the species was the main target after World War II. A population of 500,000 crashed under factory whaling to 25,000, according to the Australian Action Plan for Cetacean Research. The commission has no agreed estimate.