TOKYO—Japan's whaling ships returned to port in April from the Antarctic with 863 whales, nearly double the number of whales killed last year.
Angry U.S. conservationists say Japan is hiding behind what it calls scientific whale research to crank up commercial whale harvesting.
One global group, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, recently released a report condemning whaling "under the guise of science." It plans to buy television ads and billboards in major U.S. cities to campaign against accelerated Japanese whaling. The global activist group Greenpeace harassed Japan's whaling ships at sea this year to hinder the harvest.
Japan says the bigger harvest was legal under rules set by the International Whaling Commission, the 64-nation body that oversees whale safeguards. Even larger catches would be sustainable, officials argue, especially of the minke whale, which is relatively abundant.
Once Japan's ships returned to the port of Kanazawa, the whale meat went to market.
Consumption isn't widespread, but it carries sentimental, even patriotic, overtones. During lean years after World War II, many Japanese ate whale meat to survive.
Industry and government officials vigorously defend the increased harvest, saying foreign criticism is rife with environmental righteousness and cultural intolerance.
"Some people may not understand why we eat whale meat. But this is traditional food for us," said Makoto Ito, the general secretary of the Japan Whaling Association, a trade group. "For example, I don't eat dog meat like Korean people. But if I see Korean people killing and eating dog, I think, `That is their culture.'"
A global moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted in 1982 and went into effect four years later. Since the moratorium, though, Japan has killed more than 9,000 whales under a loophole that allows the harvesting of whales for scientific research.
"The argument that this is science is really one that the Japanese have difficulty making with a straight face," said Greg Wetstone, the U.S. director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "You can't find a meaningful peer-reviewed (academic) paper out there."
Wetstone said Japan mostly kills minke whales, but it also took 10 endangered fin whales this year and has plans to expand its hunt of fin whales and even kill humpback whales.
Japanese officials say they have to kill some whales to understand fully the age structures of whale populations, ocean ecosystems and the impact of harvesting.
"Simply by watching them, you can't know whether whales are male or female, their age, whether they are able to breed, or whether they are pregnant," said Hideki Moronuki, chief of the whaling section of the Far Seas Fisheries Division of the Japan Fisheries Agency.
Japan's research shows that minke whales are bouncing back in the southern oceans and that they're growing larger, a sign of healthier feeding grounds, Moronuki said.
Under a recent whaling plan, approved by the International Whaling Commission last year, Japan has the right to intensify its harvests.
"In order to get statistically significant figures, we need to harvest 850 minke whales, plus or minus 10 percent, and 50 fin whales," Moronuki said. "It has been verified that these numbers would not incur a negative effect."
Moronuki lambasted Greenpeace for sending vessels to harass the Japanese as they harpooned whales. He said one man suffered mental problems after nearly harpooning a Greenpeace activist by accident.
"He was so afraid that he might have killed human being. It was too dangerous," Moronuki said.
If whale harvesting can be done in a sustainable way and not damage economic interest in such tourist activities as whale watching, then it's no different than killing other large animals, Moronuki argued.
"I personally think whale watching and whale eating can exist at the same time. In Europe and the United States, people go to ranches or rodeos to watch cattle and then afterward say, `Let's eat delicious beef!' In terms of respect for life forms, it is the same," he said.
Ito, of the whaling trade group, said Japan's ships don't go after the biggest whales, nor do they harvest intensely in any one area.
Japan's quest to increase whaling will be debated at the International Whaling Commission's June meeting in St. Kitts.
Wetstone said Japan may have the votes because it's been giving economic aid to member nations in an effort to win support.
Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research says its visual research shows that humpback and fin whale populations are increasing. It plans to present the research at the meeting.
Strong disagreement is expected from nations such as Australia, which has labeled Japan's scientific whaling a sham and claims whales don't need to be killed to understand their populations.
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Doi reported from Tokyo; Johnson from Beijing.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-WHALING
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