Yesterday, five whaling boats departed from the port of Kushiro in Hokkaido, Japan. When they returned later in the day, they carried with them two minke whales, the first commercial catch of the marine mammals in that nation in 31 years.
Mari Yamaguchi at the Associated Press reports that in 1986, after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling, Japan took advantage of a loophole in the ban to conduct “research whaling,” sending whaling vessels to the Southern Ocean to hunt whales near Antarctica. Under this caveat, the the island nation, which has a long tradition of hunting and eating whale meat, harvested between 200 and 1,200 animals per year. The practice was the controversial subject of international condemnation and protest campaigns by environmental groups ever since.
Last summer, a Japanese proposal that would allow the nation to resume commerical whale hunting in its home waters was rejected by the IWC, reports Rachel Fobar at National Geographic. That prompted Japan to announce its withdrawal from the IWC in December and resume hunting in its territorial waters, which began on July 1.
AP reports that the factory ship Nisshin-maru and its support ships, which used to travel to Antarctica to chase whales, has sailed about 200 miles from shore where it will hunt sei, Minke and Bryde’s whales. The five smaller ships will hunt Minke, Baird’s beaked whales and other species closer to the coast. In total, the government has set a quota of 52 Minke, 150 Bryde’s and 25 sei whales for the rest of the year.
In Japan, whaling isn’t a particularly lucrative business, and it has in fact relied on government subsidies for years. But many people in fishing villages see it as part of their heritage. Some believe Japan’s whale hunts should be given special status, similar to the exemptions made for Native American tribes in North America that are allowed to harvest whales.
“My heart is overflowing with happiness, and I'm deeply moved,” Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association told the BBC when the hunt resumed. “People have hunted whales for more than 400 years in my hometown.”
Hisayo Takada, spokeswoman for Greenpeace Japan, tells Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno at The New York Times that whaling is no longer just about hunting meat. “[It] has become a sensitive, nationalistic topic,” she says. “It’s not about whaling itself. It’s more about Japanese pride and standing up for what people see as their culture.”
But Japanese people are lukewarm on whale meat, and support for the practice is not particularly strong. Whale meat has been hunted for centuries, but only became widely consumed in Japan after World War II, when other food sources were was scarce. Many people relied on the cheap and plentiful meat to survive. But over the years, younger generations have not developed a taste for the marine mammal. In 1962, consumption peaked at 223,000 tons of whale meat. In recent years, that number has dropped to about 3,000 tons, and there are about 3,500 tons of whale meat in cold storage.
And hunting all that whale meat is expensive. Last year alone, Japan’s whaling program lost $15 million.
Surprisingly, conservation organizations—while they condemn the commercial hunt—are not mobilizing against Japanese whaling. Organizations like Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace often harassed Japan’s whaling fleet in the Antarctic, describing them as pirate whalers. But they see the move as a step in the right direction. The animals in the Antarctic will no longer be harassed, and fewer overall whales will be taken in Japanese waters, just 227 whales compared to up to 1,200 that were hunted in some years in international waters. Unless Japan’s taste for whale meat radically increases, they believe the cost of the whaling program will eventually lead to its natural end.
“What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling,” Patrick Ramage, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, tells the AP. “It is a win-win solution that results in a better situation for whales, a better situation for Japan, a better situation for international marine conservation efforts and is therefore to be welcomed.”
Takada from Greenpeace agrees. “The whaling industry has been ingesting a lot of taxpayers’ money,” she tells the Times. “It may survive on a small scale, but it’s hard to believe whale will ever be a daily meal for Japanese people again.”
Currently, Minke and Bryde’s whales are not considered endangered. The sei whale, however, is currently on the endangered species list.