6 February 2002


Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 16:27 GMT

Japan's whale-seeking satellite

By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

One of the two countries that still hunts whales has announced plans to monitor the animals' movements by satellite.

Japan, which kills about 500 whales annually, plans to launch the satellite later this year.

Officials of the country's National Space Development Agency (Nasda) said the satellite would track whales fitted with electronic tags. One said it was thought likely to help with Japan's whaling plans.

The officials said the 50-kilogram (110 lb) satellite would be launched around October. It would be used with the global positioning system to track whales that had been fitted with electronic tags the size of coconuts, which would carry transmitters.

The system will collect data on the whales' migration patterns "and other activities".

The officials gave no details about which species of whales will be fitted with the tags, nor about how they will be attached.

Numbers disputed

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, but the following year Japan began whaling in the name of scientific research.

This is permitted under the IWC's rules, which say that any member state can kill unlimited numbers of any species, so long as the purpose is research.

For some years the Japanese fleet has been killing around 400 minke whales every year in the Antarctic.

Japan argues that there are ample whales there to support an annual kill on this scale. It believes there are about 750,000 Antarctic minkes.

Last year, the director general of the Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research, Dr Seiji Ohsumi, told the BBC: "Using the data we have acquired for the Southern Ocean minkes, our calculation is that a quota of 2,000 whales could be taken for 100 years without impact on the population."

But the IWC, responsible both for whale conservation and for regulating whaling, has recently said it does not know how many minkes there are.

Japan defends its Antarctic programme as necessary to establish the minkes' abundance.

Threatened by technology

In the North Pacific it has begun catching small numbers of sperm and Bryde's whales as well. It says they too are abundant, and it is examining their stomach contents to see whether they are eating commercially important quantities of fish.

Japan's critics say the research is simply a stratagem to keep the whaling fleet occupied until the IWC agrees to end the moratorium.

Many critics also allege that Japan misuses its aid budget to bribe smaller IWC members to vote its way at Commission meetings. Japan rejects the suggestion.

Richard Page of Greenpeace UK told BBC News Online: "The fisheries agency of Japan is hell-bent on resuming full-blown commercial whaling, including buying votes at the IWC.

"Even before the advent of satellite technology, whales didn't stand a chance. What hope have they now?"

One cetacean expert told BBC News Online he thought Japan would use its satellite technology to enhance its research programme, not to replace it, and that using the satellite would not save a single whale from death.

The only other country to kill whales in large numbers is Norway, which is not bound by the IWC's moratorium because it objected to it.

Several communities in the Arctic and the Caribbean are allowed to continue their traditional whale hunts in order to ensure their survival.