Researchers set sail from New Zealand on Tuesday to study whales off Antarctica without killing them — an open challenge to Japan's killing of up to 1,000 whales a year in the name of science.
Japan has a six-boat whaling fleet in Antarctic waters as part of its scientific whaling program, an allowed exception to the International Whaling Commission's 1986 ban on commercial whaling. Opponents claim Japan's program is commercial whaling in disguise, with the whale meat sold for food in Japan.
Some 18 scientists from Australia, France and New Zealand are taking part in the initial six-week voyage from the New Zealand capital, Wellington, to research whales, their food and their interaction with the environment.
Andrew Leachman, captain of the research vessel Tangaroa, told AP on Tuesday he expects to take about seven and a half days to reach the edge of the Antarctic pack ice near Cape Colbeck on the Ross Sea, where the team will begin tracking whales in temperatures of about minus 2 degrees Celsius (28 degrees Fahrenheit).
Australian Conservation Minister Peter Garrett said the research project, named the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, seeks to reform the management of science within the International Whaling Commission, end scientific whaling and develop internationally agreed, cooperative whale conservation management plans.
"It is the largest of its kind in the world that places a premium on scientific knowledge and says that we don't have to kill whales to learn about them," Garrett said.
The techniques they use will include biopsy sampling using retrievable darts, photography, satellite tag tracking, whale feces recovery and acoustic surveys.
"We remain absolutely and completely opposed to killing whales in the name of science," Garrett told reporters as he extended an invitation to Japan and others to participate in the research.
Despite protests by anti-whaling groups like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the number of whales targeted by the Japanese in their program has more than doubled, Garrett said.
He said the research program is not intended to collect evidence for possible legal action to try to halt Japan's annual whale kill. Australia sent a government vessel to watch Japan's whale fleet during the 2007-08 season and collect evidence for a possible lawsuit in an international court, but the threat of legal action is yet to be followed up.
Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research has no intention at this stage of taking part in the non-lethal research program, said Glenn Inwood, the New Zealand-based spokesman for the institute.
"If you want to hunt whales ... to eat them, then you are going to need data that can only be obtained through lethal research," he told The Associated Press.
Non-lethal whale research can't provide age-related data or accurate data on individual whale birthing rates, he said.
Preliminary results of the expedition will be presented at the IWC annual meeting in Morocco in June. Inwood said Japan would respond to the research once it was published.
The nations supporting the non-lethal research program are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, France, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Uruguay and the United States.
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