A Japanese satellite to monitor the migration of minke whales will be launched in October. It will collect data from coconut-sized electronic tags that have been attached to whales using airguns. Used in combination with global positioning system technology, the tags should provide information on migratory routes as well as data on how deep the whales swim and how often they surface, says Tomonao Hayashi of the Chiba Institute of Technology, who helped develop the satellite system.

Satellite monitoring technology is used by groups around the world for scientific research into whale migration patterns. But some people fear the Japanese satellite will use the information to provide detailed data for use by the country?s whaling fleet.

Japanese whalers kill about 400 minke whales, 50 Bryde?s whales and 10 sperm whales each year, for what they call scientific research. These catches are permitted under International Whaling Commission (IWC) regulations. But Japan wants to resume large-scale commercial whaling, which is currently banned.

?The fisheries agency of Japan is hell-bent on resuming full-blown commercial whaling,? says Richard Page of Greenpeace. ?If this satellite tracking technique is used to help whalers, what hope have the whales got??

Mark Simmonds, director of science at the U.K.?s Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, says research into minke whale populations is badly needed. ?What has become very clear in the last year is that there are more than one species of minke whale. And it is very well established that there are very different minke populations. Some have a poor conservation status, whereas some appear to be relatively common.

?It does make sense to try to clarify this,? he says. ?To try to track animals to see where they?re going and what they?re doing is a sensible thing to do.? But he feels that scientists from other countries should be allowed to review Japan?s satellite tracking proposals to ensure they constitute ?bona fide science.?

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