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Minke found in abundance

THE WORLD'S most wanted whale is the minke. And the reason it is in the harpoon sights of Norway, Iceland, Japan and possibly Russia is precisely because it was once among the least wanted of the leviathans, writes Nicholas Schoon.

Minkes are the smallest of the so-called great whales. Adults only grow to 20ft (6m) in length and 10 tons (10,160kg) in weight. Being so small, the whalers left them until last. The slaughter of minkes did not begin in earnest until the late 1960s when stocks of larger whales were depleted.

Today, after a four-year ban on all commercial whaling, the minke is the most abundant of the great whales, found in all the oceans. The International Whaling Commission's scientific committee has estimated that there are between 500,000 and 1,400,000 in Antarctic waters: its best guess is 760,000.

The total official catch of this stock of minkes to date is 115,000 animals. The hunting of Antarctic minkes has been done almost exclusively by Japan, spread over more than a decade and it continues as research whaling. It has not been enough to dent the population severely.

There are roughly 100,000 in the North Atlantic and 20,000 in the North Pacific. In all, the planet may boast about a million minkes. If a few hundred, or even a few thousand, were to be slaughtered a year there would be no danger of extinction.

The overt argument at the International Whaling Commission is over what conditions should be in place before commercial whaling of minkes begins. The covert argument is whether it can be morally justified.