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Resumption of Commercial Whaling May Bring an End to the Industry

SNA (Tokyo) – For the first time in 31 years, commercial whaling boats have returned to the Japanese ports with their first catch of minke whales, having set out on July 1. While conservationists around the world are appalled by the apparent revival of the industry, a lack of demand for the meat it produces may, in fact, lead to its ultimate demise.

Japan announced its plans to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in December 2018 and implemented its decision to leave on June 30, 2019. The departure of Japan as a member of the committee carries with it restrictions on where its whaling can occur; hunts are now limited to the country’s own territorial waters and its 200-mile exclusive economic zones, meaning that the Antarctic Ocean is now barred from use.

The IWC was formed in 1948 to ensure the protection of whale stocks and to help establish responsible development of the industry, with Japan joining in 1951. A moratorium was adopted in 1982 which halted commercial whaling for all members so that the population of whales could recover, reflecting the commission’s shift towards conservation.

Japan’s decision to leave the IWC was due to its disagreement with the anti-whaling sentiments held by many of its member countries. Over the years, the change in focus from promoting the sustainability of hunts to the conservation of whales has driven a wedge between Japan and a handful of whaling countries on the one hand, which argued that many species no longer faced the threat of extinction, and most of the IWC on the other hand. As a nation with a rich history and tradition of whaling dating back to the 16th century, the Japanese withdrawal from the commission was seen by some as inevitable.

In the years after the decision for the IWC’s moratorium, and Japan’s agreement to abide by it in 1986, whaling continued in the North Pacific and Antarctic oceans under the guise of scientific research. Japanese scientists argued that the data gathered from these hunts was crucial, as it would lead to the sustainable usage of whale resources in the future, a goal which they stated was very much in the spirit of the IWC’s original purpose.

As a by-product of these “scientific” hunts, and within the guidelines set by the IWC itself, whale meat was processed and sold domestically. International criticism of this practice came to a head in 2014 when Japan was brought to the International Court of Justice and ordered to halt its research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean, with the judge ruling that there was no scientific basis for these hunts in spite of the Japanese government’s claims. Months later, Japan resumed its scientific whaling with a reduced limit on how many whales it would kill. The Japanese government claimed that it was acting within the terms of the court judgment, but the critics portrayed it as a defiance of international law.

Japan’s decision to resume its commercial whaling has also been heavily criticized by international observers, with some fearing that other countries may follow suit. However, Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC and its subsequent change from scientific to commercial whaling may be exactly what leads to the practice to die out.

While Japan will remain on the board of the IWC as an observer and adhere to the committee’s catch limits to maintain sustainability in its commercial whaling venture, the fact that hunts will no longer be conducted for supposed research purposes will have an adverse effect on funding.

In the past, whaling done under the pretext of scientific research was made possible by annual subsidies provided by the Japanese government–around US$378 million has been spent in total since 1987. Now that hunts are carried out commercially, the government plans on decreasing the money given to whalers, which amounts to around US$10 million annually on average, over the course of the next three years.

For now, fewer whales are being hunted. The announced quota for this year’s hunt is 227 whales; a cap of 52 minke, 150 bryde’s, and 25 (endangered) sei whales. Research whaling done in the past led to the deaths of anywhere between 200 and 1,200 whales a year, with last year’s hunt in the Antarctic Ocean alone killing 333 whales. Limited to territorial waters and the exclusive economic zones, the areas in which whales’ lives are in danger has been reduced considerably.

The consumption of whale meat, which peaked at a rate of 200,000 tons a year in the 1960s, has plummeted to a mere 5,000 tons annually. A fifth of that is sourced from other whaling countries such as Iceland or Norway. Gone are the days where whale meat was a staple of school lunches, a cheap protein alternative that some older individuals may remember fondly; now people eat only around 40 grams a year per capita. The evolution of Japan’s diet means that many have never even tried whale meat or would only try it if offered to them.

During the era of Japan’s research whaling, the price for meat was determined by the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) and set at a fixed cost, but now those prices will be dictated by market forces. The industry’s main concern is profitability and the stability of prices.

From an outside perspective, Japan’s decision to resume commercial whaling despite the lack of demand for whale meat is puzzling. Many of those in favor of the industry support it as a matter of “tradition.” Some regions have a rich whaling culture, and there are voices within these regions who say that they would like to pass it down to the next generation. Those who have eaten whale meat in their childhood are often more favorable towards the revival of commercial whaling.

Given that the majority of Japanese citizens do not regularly eat whale meat, however, there is a great deal of indifference regarding the issue. While some may not be pro-whaling, they have antagonistic feelings towards international “anti-whaling” criticisms. For them, it is a matter of national pride. While consumption of whale meat may be minimal, the thought of other countries dictating Japanese diets is something that many cannot abide.

Whaling in other nations such as Iceland and Norway has also begun to fall out of favor, with other options such as whale-watching and ecotourism becoming increasingly profitable. Data from recent years has shown that catches have fallen below the quotas set by these countries. With Japan being both the biggest practitioner and public advocate for hunting whales, this nation may very well be the one that has the most difficulty in ending the whaling industry with finality.

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