CANBERRA - Australian researchers have begun an aerial count of whales in the Antarctic ahead of the yearly Japanese hunt as Australia's government mulls a legal challenge to halt the yearly slaughter.
A team from the new Australian Centre for Applied Marine Mammal Science will spend several weeks flying over 150,000 square km of pack ice off eastern Antarctica to count minke whales from the air.
"Ships can't survey through the ice. On a big icebreaker, it's a bit like trying to count birds in the jungle by driving a bulldozer through -- they scatter," expedition leader Nick Gales, from the Australian Antarctic Division, told the Age newspaper.
Japan's whaling fleet plans to hunt 935 minke whales, 50 fin whales and, for the first time in 40 years, 50 humpback whales for research over the Antarctic summer. The fleet is already on its way south followed by anti-whaling activists.
Humpbacks were hunted nearly to extinction until protected by the International Whaling Commission in 1966.
Australia is a strong opponent of whaling and the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, will decide next week whether to send a navy ship and long-range aircraft south to gather evidence for a case against Japan in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Rudd's centre-left Labor government has flagged sending warships beyond Australian waters into the country's self-proclaimed Antarctic territory, which is not recognised by other nations and which includes a whale sanctuary.
Japan's fisheries agency, confident its whaling rights will be confirmed, has challenged any country to take it to the court for a binding judgment.
Australian international law specialist Don Rothwell warned earlier this year that naval patrols would breach the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which deemed Antarctica to be a demilitarised zone, and possibly spark an international incident.
The researchers say the aerial count will provide the first accurate measure of the number of whales living in pack ice as debate rages over Japan's research whaling programme.
The team of 10 expert surveyors are to take photographs, video footage and infra-red imagery to back the count, eventually using mathematical modelling to provide an estimate of the total minke whale population living near the coast.
The last official count of Antarctic minke whales was completed close to 20 years ago and put the population at 860,000, but Gales said that number could now have been halved.
Japan has long resisted pressure to stop scientific whaling, insisting that whaling is a cherished cultural tradition. Its fleet has killed 7000 Antarctic minkes over the last 20 years.
The meat, which under commission rules must be sold for consumption, ends up in supermarkets and restaurants, but the appetite for what is now a delicacy is fading.
Gales said past counts had relied on ship-based observation done in open waters and largely clear of the pack ice for safety reasons.
"We know whales like minkes do go into the ice, but we don't know if that is a tiny percent of the population or a lot," he said.