Animals

Even Small Whales Worth $100,000

From December through March 2016, Japan will kill minke whales worth more than $33 million. But they're priceless to conservationists hoping to save these gentle filter feeders. →

Japan's recent announcement from its Fisheries Agency that it plans to hunt 333 Antarctic minke whales over the next four months provides a reminder of how valuable even these small whales are, and the lengths that some people will go to in order to kill them.

Minke whales are the second smallest filter-feeling whales, and yet each one can fetch around $100,000 in countries like Korea where certain consumers believe whale meat is a nutritious, traditional and healthy delicacy. That dollar figure is reported in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management.

Author Kyung-Jun Song of the University of Ulsan's Whale Research Institute wrote that "acquisition of this meat is a powerful incentive for fishers."

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For many years, minke whales have been killed as bycatch, meaning that they supposedly were not the target of fishermen, but instead "accidentally" wound up in nets meant to catch fish and other sea life.

Scientists, however, note that the bycatch deaths are not always accidental.

As Song wrote, "some individuals may wait until minke whales trapped in a set net have drowned, deliberately set fishing gear in places where minke whales frequently occur, or drive minke whales toward fishing gear."

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Marine mammal conservationists like Song therefore believe it's necessary to reduce incentives now held by fishermen and others who currently stand to gain from the whale deaths.

That's no small matter, considering other research from Japan that coincides with the renewed effort to hunt minke whales in Antarctica.

Research led by Genta Yasunaga of the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo reports that pollutants in the bodies of Antarctic minke whales are much lower than that of other whales, including minkes from different regions. Yasunaga and colleagues attribute that to minkes being lower on the food chain than marine mammals like killer whales (orcas). The researchers also write that certain pollutants "have been removed from the Antarctic Ocean surface since the late (1980s)."

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Other studies have concluded that all whales, including minkes, contain toxins that could threaten human health.

Yet schools in Japan - such as the Higashi-machi and Shibaura elementary school in the Minato ward of Tokyo - have served whale meat to students, with officials saying it's very popular and a traditional food there.

In terms of how Japan's resumed whaling will affect the overall minke population and associated ecosystem, the outcome remains unclear. The IUCN admits that "there is no estimate of the global population size" for minkes. It lists the whales as being of Least Concern for conservation, yet also reports on its Red List of Endangered Species that population "declines have been detected or inferred in some areas."

What's clear is that many people stand to earn a lot of money, and perhaps feelings of national pride in defiance of the International Court of Justice, once the killings begin. Should the 333 whales go on the market, their current dollar value could be well over $33 million.

A Minke whale swims in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.

The month of June honors both National Ocean Month and World Ocean Day (June 8). What better time, then, to check out photos of undersea life and be reminded that things "down there" are just as important as things up here on land. Here, a manatee goes about its day. The manatee, also known as a "seacow," is an air-breathing herbivore listed as a federally endangered species. Manatees are slow moving and can't swim quickly away from boats. This often results in collisions that can kill or injure them.

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Life's a beach. Mom and her baby elephant seal roll around in the sand in Ano Nuevo Island, Calif.

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A humpback whale breaches in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of California.

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A blue rockfish fans for the camera in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in California.

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A Southern sea otter, aka,

Enhydra lutris nereis

, wonders what all the fuss is about, at South Harbor, Moss Landing, Calif. The World Ocean Day Photo Contest entrant was Submitted by Dr. Steve Lonhart.

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A white-lobed sponge brightens up the scenery. It's one of several images of rarely seen deep-sea animals that were captured on camera in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary during a NOAA expedition. Researchers used a NOAA remotely operated vehicle in waters 328 to 656 feet deep off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The research was funded by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program.

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This image brimming with colorful marine life is from the Pearl and Hermes Atoll. It's a huge oval coral reef within several internal reefs and is the second largest among the six atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

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Having no backbone isn't always a bad thing! Just ask any octopus. These boneless invertebrates know how to squeeze into (and out of) many a tight spot. They have three hearts, nine brains and blue blood. (Two hearts send blood to the gills, while the third pumper sends it to the rest of the body.)

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Rapture Reef sits within the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. The monument encompasses more than 140,000 square miles of ocean and coral reef habitat.

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A sea turtle swims off of the Hawaiian islands.

This seal is eager to wriggle its way back to freedom, as divers release it from fishing nets. Marine debris -- such as these nets -- makes a serious impact on its surroundings. From being an eyesore on a beach to injuring marine life or stopping a 400-ton vessel at sea, it causes problems that are difficult to ignore.

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Grey matter artwork? Nope! It's a sharknose goby (

Elacatinus evelynae

) propped up on brain coral in the U.S. Virgin Islands.