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A Japanese Fleet Killed Over 300 Whales This Season

The creatures were supposedly collected for the sake of research

This Japanese vessel is supposedly researching whales in Australia—but opponents say it's just whaling under another name. (ICR)
smithsonian.com

For over 30 years, there’s been an international moratorium on commercial whaling. So why did a fleet from one of the countries that signed on to the agreement just kill over 300 minke whales? It’s a question that’s greeting a Japanese whaling fleet as it heads home with its annual kill—a trip that, as the Associated Press reports, was technically taken in the name in of science.

In a press release, the fisheries agency says that it collected 333 minke whales along with “biological samples” in order to better calculate future catch quotas and learn more about the Antarctic marine ecosystem. But, reports the AP, opponents think it’s commercial whaling under another name—and international bodies have censured Japan for such activities before.

Like other signatories to international treaties about whaling, Japan agreed to stop hunting whales for profit in 1986. But the treaty allows for whaling for the sake of research—so Japan kept on hunting whales. Reuters reports that the supposedly scientific hunts began the year after the moratorium went into effect. Japan did halt Antarctic whaling for a year after an international court ruling, but later resumed the program under a different name with lower quotas.

Whaling was once a major part of Japanese culture and cuisine. But as WIRED’s Sarah Zhang reports, whale meat is no longer popular in Japan, and the refusal to stop whaling is seen as a stand for traditional values. Despite claims that the whales are killed for research and the fact that the demand for whale meat has declined, reports Reuters, it still ends up on store shelves after their annual expeditions.

Japan isn’t the only country that has flouted international whaling agreements. Norway refused to sign on to the moratorium and still hunts whales. But as National Geographic’s Rachael Bale and Tim Laman report, whale meat is increasingly unpopular there, too, and at least one environmental group has accused Norway of using the meat to supplement animal feed at fur farms instead. Iceland, too, hunts minke whales for profit—even though Icelanders are eating less whale meat than ever before.

Despite the global outcry against Japan’s whale hunt, minke whales are not threatened with extinction. The IUCN, which assesses and categorizes animal threats, classifies the minke whale’s status as of “least concern” and says that, despite no estimate of global population size, it is “well above the thresholds for a threatened category.” But for conservationists, that’s no reason not to protect whales. “It is hard to imagine any other scientific investigation of a species being organized around the principle of mass killing,” the International Fund for Animal Welfare says on its website.

Will Japan eventually back down? It’s uncertain what effect international pressure, which has so far been unable to stop the hunts, will have. But as long as Japan continues labeling its whaling as scientific research, the controversy will likely continue.

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