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Wednesday, 14 March, 2001, 12:21 GMT
Harpooned whales 'seldom die instantly'
Lances in whale caught by Japanese PA
A bloody business: Some experts believe whaling can never be humane
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A UK scientist says some hunted whales live for more than an hour after being harpooned.

He found that the harpoons themselves and the rifles used to finish off wounded whales were often ineffective.

On Japanese whaling trips, only 30% of the animals were normally killed immediately. Many of the long killing times recorded were linked to a failure of part of the whaling gear.

The scientist, Dr Steve Kestin, of the department of clinical veterinary science at Bristol University, UK, reports his findings in the Veterinary Record, published by the British Veterinary Association.

Dr Kestin reviewed the data on minke whale deaths between 1983 and 2000.

Different fuses

Only Norway and Japan now hunt whales, using provisions in the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling which allow them to do so. Both kill mainly minkes, the smallest of the great whales.

Dead minkes on Norwegian boat AP
Norway's methods have improved
Both use grenade-tipped harpoons fired from a cannon, and wounded whales are usually killed with rifles or further harpoons, and (by Japan until 1997) with electric lances.

The Japanese grenades are less than 50% efficient, detonating inside the whales in only 1,310 of 2,758 animals hit in 1983/84. The fuses were developed for large whales, and most grenades which do not explode within the whale do so in the water after the harpoon has passed right through its body.

More than 90% of Norwegian grenades, by contrast, explode within the whale, using fuses specially designed for smaller whales which detonate the grenade at a predetermined depth in the animal as the harpoon traverses its body.

Weather conditions

Dr Kestin says: "The Norwegians kill a much higher proportion immediately than the Japanese. They have increased this proportion substantially.

"There has been no appreciable or sustained increase in the proportion of whales killed immediately by the Japanese.

"It seems probable that the use of the Norwegian grenade by the Japanese would increase the proportion of whales killed immediately."

Another reason suggested for the different rates is the weather: Norway operates in the north Atlantic, Japan in the Antarctic.

Improvements possible

The most recent results show that in the Norwegian industry about 60% of whales were judged to have been killed immediately, with only 30% in Japanese whaling.

Whale waves flukes AP
Pressure is growing for whaling to resume
With both countries, more than six minutes passed before half the wounded whales were pronounced dead. The longest time for an animal to die was about 90 minutes for Norway, and (according to one author) 130 minutes for Japan.

Dr Kestin says the Norwegian data show "how a concerted programme of development of equipment and killing practices can make improvements to an unsatisfactory system".

But he says: "It would seem that the existing whale-killing methods and equipment are not capable of significant further improvement."

He says there is evidence showing that nearly half the animals hit by Japanese whalers are struck in a region which would not lead to rapid death.

Multiple shots

And he notes concerns that even the most powerful rifles are not enough to kill a whale efficiently with a single bullet.

It often takes three bullets or more, and sometimes as many as nine.

"From the point of view of animal welfare", he concludes, "there appears to be both the scope and the need to improve the current practices."

Dr Kestin told BBC News Online: "We do manage to kill some wild animals, like deer and impala, with great efficiency. You can do it humanely if you have the right equipment.

"But I can't currently visualise an acceptably humane way of killing whales."

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See also:

06 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Whaling ban stays - for now
03 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Minke whale numbers 'declining'
11 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Whaling ban set to end
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