First whale sighted, but days may be short . . .

By MEL MARTIN

SPIRIT of Coffs Harbour skipper Peter Bruce may have been shouting 'whale ahoy' on the weekend, but it isn't their seasonal arrival that is keeping them in the news.

As the first humpback whale for the year was sighted on our coastline, Coffs Harbour City Council general manager Mark Ferguson said he would consider answering the Federal Government's call to use our sister-city status with Sasebo to pressure Japan over its bid to hunt humpback whales.

Mr Bruce reported the first sighting of the season of a young male humpback over the weekend. This whale is one of an estimated 2000 who will migrate along our coastline this season.

But these numbers could be compromised, with Japan hoping to get the go ahead at the upcoming International Whaling Commission meeting to increase its take of minke whales in the Antarctic, and to add humpback and fin whales to its 'scientific research' hunts.

Federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell has urged towns with sister-city relationships with Japan to use their clout to protest Japan's 'scientific whaling'.

"It would be very helpful to our cause against the slaughter of whales if local authorities with sister-city ties were to relay the concerns of their communities to their counterparts in Japan," he said.

Mr Ferguson said the council would consider raising the issue with sister-city Sasebo ? one of 99 sister-cities between Australia and Japan.

"Whale watching is a growing industry for the Coffs Coast, and it would be worthwhile opening dialogue with Sasebo City Council. But this is normally handled at the Federal level and ultimately is a Japanese government issue," he said.

However, director of the Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre, Associate Professor Peter Harrison, is not convinced this would have much impact.

"It's a good move to be applying diplomatic pressure from many fronts, including as sister cities, but I don't see that it will make a huge difference," he said.

He said there was no justification for the killing of whales under the guise of research, as the information gleaned could be obtained through other means.

The future survival of humpbacks would be under serious threat if Japan is successful in its bid to kill what is understood to be around 50 humpbacks.

"(Japan's) normal strategy is to start with small numbers, then increase in subsequent years," Assoc Prof Harrison said.

Of serious concern, he added, is that the largest males and females, which are the oldest and most important breeding population, would be targeted. This would soon lead to a fall in numbers, possibly back to the edge of extinction.

"These humpbacks have not been hunted. They're boat friendly, so they'll be easy targets, and those that escape will become wary of boats. They could even become aggressive."

The three main whaling countries, Japan, Norway and Iceland, currently kill about 1000 whales every year under the exemption, with each whale worth an estimated $130,000 to harpooners according to Greenpeace.

The International Whaling Commission meeting will be held in Korea from June 20 to 24.



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