whaling fleet comprising five small vessels set out from a port in northern Kushiro Monday, marking the resumption of commercial whaling by Japan after 31 years. A whale factory ship Nisshin Maru, and two other whalers also started off from the port of Shimonoseki, in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, to conduct offshore whaling. These vessels are to hunt for minke, sei and Bryde’s whales. Environmentalists are, quite understandably, up in arms again as they perceive the move as an added threat to whale populations. Japan had gained notoriety for indiscriminate killing of whales, and in 1962 the country recorded peak consumption of 2,23,000 tonnes of whale meat. The appetite for whale meat, which the country had developed during the lean times after the Second World War, however, dipped to 6,000 tonnes in 1986, just a year before the International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling. The country by then had diversified its taste for meat and was hunting fewer whales. In 1988, Japan had switched to what was called ‘research whaling’ — a move that environmentalists see as the smokescreen behind which commercial whaling has continued. Currently, according to the Fisheries Agency of Japan, the country consumes 4,000-5,000 tonnes of whale meat annually, which translates to 30-40 grams consumed per person per year. Actual figures could be much more. However, six months ago, Japan communicated its decision, by way of a notice to the IWC, that it was withdrawing from the commission. It also timed the resumption of commercial whaling and declaration of the annual quota of whaling after the G-20 Summit at Osaka. It is seen as a deliberate move to avoid criticism of the country for its support for whaling.
Although Japan has stated that it will stick to waters within its exclusive economic zone for hunting whales, it has carried out hunts in the Antarctic Ocean for what it has described as ‘research purposes’. Japanese vessels conducted whaling expeditions in the Antarctic and northwest Pacific Oceans in 1987 and 1994, which were subject to acute international criticism. The meat of whales hunted for what was termed as scientific research was sold domestically, which attracted global condemnation and the accusation that commercial whaling was being conducted under the guise of science. Japan has continued such research claiming that data gathered would be used to determine quotas for commercial whaling. On Monday, the Fisheries Agency declared the quota for the year as 227 whales through late December — 52 minke, 150 Bryde’s and 25 sei whales. According to the agency, hunts at this level were sustainable even if whaling continued for 100 years.
The factor that is being forgotten in this brutal narrative is climate change. Marine creatures are already under immense pressure from the fishing industry around the world. Under the circumstances, Japan is sending out a very bad signal to the rest of the world with regard to bad fishing practices. Although the country claims to have the necessary knowhow to ensure sustainable hunting of whales, only outcome can prove the damage and destruction. Then, it might be too late.
Countries such as the Maldives have shown the way by adopting sustainable traditional techniques such as pole and line fishing of tuna. The seafood so caught is also being marked with the blue label of the Marine Stewardship Council, which works for sustainable capture of seafood. Japan’s action can lead to pressure from other commercial seafood lobbies around the world and restart a vicious cycle. Such a scenario must be forestalled. Japan can find a way out and stop a domino effect if it sets its heart to it. It must. If it does not, it damages the whole Earth.