The Japanese government was adamant last week that its practise of "research" whaling is essential if it is to discover how whales affect the world's fisheries. The annual report of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries was published last Tuesday, and sought to defend a practise condemned by many governments and pressure groups worldwide.

Commercial whaling was a widespread practise until a global moratorium under the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned the practise in 1982 because some whales species were being hunted to extinction. In 1987, however, Japan resumed whale hunting under a loophole in the moratorium that allows hunting for research purposes.

Pressure groups such as Greenpeace are adamant that the research whaling is nothing more than a cover for the continuation of commercial whaling, a lucrative business worth around ¥4bn a year. "Japan claims its whaling is research but in reality there is no difference between scientific whaling and commercial whaling. The real reason Japan continues whaling is so that it can keep its whaling industry alive and its domestic market supplied with whale meat until a way can be found to reverse the moratorium decision," according the Greenpeace UK's website.

The report insists however that hunting is essential "to find how the whales' consumption affects the fishery industries." Its findings conclude: "Do you know whales eat a great deal of saury and cuttlefish? The amount of fish, which the world's whales eat annually, is estimated to be three to five times as many as the amount that of the world's ocean fishing industries' catch."

"The research from the 2000 expedition," it added, "reconfirmed that they [whales] are in competition with fishery industries."

The report also renewed the Japanese attack on members of the IWC: "The IWC is an institution designed to secure and utilize whale resources, but it has ceased to function properly for a long time. This is due to the fact that many of 40 member nations have nothing to do with whaling and the organization maintains its ban on commercial whaling of the more than 760,000 mink whales that live in the Antarctic Ocean, which amount to an extremely abundant resource."

Japan has elicited much criticism for the focus of its "research" whaling expeditions, however. In 2000, it increased its own quota to 440 mike whales. Among these were 50 Bryde's whales and 10 sperm whales. Both of these species are protected under US.

Norway turned its back on the international moratorium in January when it revealed that it was to resume commercial whaling for the Japanese market. To read about the decision, click here.