International Research On Whales About To Start

  • Marian Hobbs

The Government has given the go-ahead to a Japan-backed International Whaling Commission (IWC) research expedition to observe whales while passing through New Zealand waters en route to Antarctica, Duty Minister and Minister for the Environment, Marian Hobbs, said today. But strict criteria have been set and every step will be watched.

"We are strong supporters of whale population research and cooperate with those who do research in a manner which protects the whales," Ms Hobbs said.

Two former Japanese whaling vessels chartered by the IWC will enter our waters on December 30. Both New Zealand and Japan are members of the IWC.

"This expedition has definite positives for New Zealand, though the irony that the two expedition vessels had previous Japanese whaling involvement is not lost on us," the Minister said.

This is the second year the IWC has organised the Southern Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research programme (SOWER), which concentrates on sightings, photography and videotaping of whales. The research programme is broad-based to obtain information on stocks of great whale species.

"The IWC and Japanese Government are fully aware of New Zealand’s total opposition to whaling," Ms Hobbs said. "Equally they understand our commitment to research on whales, provided this is non-lethal. The SOWER expedition is an important part of such research."

Ms Hobbs said the Department of Conservation welcomed the chance to get new data on whale species movements within New Zealand waters. New Zealand scientist Paul Ensor, an IWC consultant, will lead a team of international scientists during the expedition.

"Last year’s Southern Ocean expedition showed previous minke whales estimates were over inflated. This clearly shows the international community knows very little about whale populations in many areas, so unobtrusive research like this is invaluable," said Ms Hobbs.

While in New Zealand waters, the vessels are required to operate in "passing mode" only - which means when the expedition vessels pass whales, they will be observed, and not actively followed.

Ms Hobbs says the approval for the expedition entering New Zealand waters and undertaking non-lethal research is conditional upon:

* all research documentation within New Zealand waters being available to the Department of Conservation and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade;

* notice of all expedition vessel movements;

* taking skin samples from whales within New Zealand waters is strictly forbidden. (However, this non-lethal practice is likely to be undertaken in Antarctica.);

* expedition vessels not to be allowed within 200 metres of a group of whales or whale with a calf, or within 50 metres of a single whale;

* in addition an Initial Environmental Evaluation (IEE) be submitted under the Antarctica (Environmental Protection) Act; and

* confirmation from the Japanese Government that all conditions will be adhered to and an undertaking to do non-lethal research only, both in New Zealand and Antarctic