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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 16:13 GMT
Whale farm plan lambasted
Japanese whaling ship
Catching whales for life in captivity could prove difficult
Environmentalists have described an idea for the world's first whale farm off the coast of Japan as "preposterous".

Minke whales are a highly migratory species and travel long distances. In captivity they won't behave normally

Richard Page, Greenpeace
Richard Page, of Greenpeace International, told BBC News Online that trying to farm whales was "totally unfeasible" and posed all sorts of difficulties - from feeding the large animals to making them reproduce in captivity.

He said the publicity surrounding the project was a way of diverting the public's attention from Japan's controversial whale hunting activities in Antarctica.

The town of Hirado in south-west Japan says it is planning to set up a whale farm to entertain tourists and study the animals behaviour and breeding patterns.

Scientific data

Local officials were quoted by Japanese media as saying they were planning to trap minke whales in nets and bring them into a whale reserve covering five square kilometres (two square miles) of waters off the town's shores.

The farm would then try to breed minke whales for research purposes and later develop facilities for whale watching. It remains unclear whether some animals would be killed to provide meat for Japanese restaurants.

Man eating whale meat in Japan
Whale meat is considered a delicacy in Japan
The town of Hirado, about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) southwest of Tokyo, was famous for its whaling industry until World War II.

The idea to revive that tradition was first reported in Japanese media last year and has been warmly welcomed by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research.

Its director general, Seiji Osumi, said last week that the farm would be the realisation of a dream that could provide precious scientific data.

Feeding problems

"There are many things unknown about whales, and we will be able to carry out research on their behaviour," he said.

But critics like Greenpeace's Richard Page said the idea was "ludicrous" and the difficulties of farming minke whales were enormous.

Greenpeace ship MV Arctic Sunrise
Greenpeace has been tracking the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctica
"We know very little about where minke whales breed," he said, adding that there was no guarantee that they would mate and calve in captivity.

"Minke whales are a highly migratory species and travel long distances; in captivity they won't behave normally," he said.

There is the additional challenge of feeding the large mammals.

Although minkes are the smallest of the great whales, they still can weigh up to nine tonnes and reach 10 metres (32 feet) in length in maturity. They eat up to 200 kg (440 lbs) of fish per day.

Legal loophole

Japan's stance on whaling has been the focus of international criticism for years.

A Japanese fleet is currently on an expedition in Antarctica to harvest 440 minke whales, despite a global ban on whaling introduced by the International Whaling Commission.

For years, the government in Tokyo has been using a loophole in the IWC rules that allow "scientific whaling" - but critics of Japan's position say that is just a pretext for bringing back commercial whale hunting.

Whale meat is considered a delicacy in Japan, and meat from the scientific expeditions is sold to restaurants.

While organisations like Greenpeace say the number of minke whales has declined sharply over recent years, Japan says they are abundant in the Antarctic.

See also:

08 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Japan's whale-seeking satellite
17 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Whalers battle protesters
04 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Whaling 'safe for a century'
26 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Whaling ban survives intact
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