Whaling renegades resume hunt

Japan sets sights on 400 whales, even as UN meeting underscores protection

Feature story - 11 November, 2002
Exploiting a loophole big enough to sail five whaling vessels through, a Japanese fleet has once again set off to defy international law and hunt protected whales. And once again the world will witness the unnecessary and destructive pretence of "scientific whaling" so the Japanese government can prop up a declining industry.

Japanese catcher vessel Nisshin Maru transferring a minke whale to a factory ship in the Southern Ocean.

The five Japanese whaling ships left for their annual Antarctic whale hunt on November 8 from the port of Shimonoseki, where last April an IWC (international Whaling Commission) meeting ended in controversy after Japan and allies tried and failed to overturn the commercial whaling moratorium. Undaunted by international law, the whalers are headed for the waters south of Australia and New Zealand, the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, a critical protected area.

Soundly defeated - again!

On the same day they headed off to go whaling, the Japanese whaling program received a fresh rebuke. Japanese government proposals to re-open commercial whaling and trade in minke and Bryde's whales were soundly defeated at the UN CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting underway in Santiago, Chile. It's the fourth time such proposals have failed.

Where are the white lab coats?

So who actually conducts the "scientific research"? It's Japan's whaling industry, through a private organisation subsidised by the Fisheries Agency of Japan (FAJ). The research has continued for more than fifteen years. Evidently, scientific curiosity about whales was massively piqued in Japan just after their commercial whaling ended with the 1986 worldwide whaling ban.

"Cockroaches of the sea"

So far this year Japanese whalers have killed 684 whales including 39 endangered sei whales, as well as minke, Bryde's and sperm whales. Japan's latest hunt is expected to last until April 2003 and to take 400 minke whales. The Japanese government claims the so-called research is needed to learn what whales eat. The FAJ claims whales are responsible for declining Japanese fish landings, when overfishing and other human activities are the true cause. "Cockroaches of the sea" is how one Japanese senior fisheries diplomat referred to minke whales.

But these researchers must have failed "Whale Biology 101", because they seem ignorant of the most basic facts about their subjects. On the same hunt last year the whalers caught 440 whales. "Not one of the 440 whales they caught had eaten fish," said Greenpeace campaigner John Frizell, "This species does not eat fish and this has been known for decades."

Just stop the "research", says IWC

The so-called research is supposedly done for the IWC. Yet the IWC never requested it and they say they don't need the data. They have even repeatedly asked that the research be cancelled, and urged Japan to stop issuing scientific permits for the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Worryingly, the IWC recently agreed that Antarctic minke whale numbers are likely much lower than previously thought.

If it's really data these "researchers" want, then the painful and protracted deaths of harpooned whales are completely unnecessary. Australian scientists have determined how to learn about whale diet by analysing whale faeces from live animals, a methodology which actually yields superior data over time.

Declining support at home

Not killing whales. . . this would present a dilemma for the Japanese government. For then how would their whaling industry acquire whale meat, like the two thousand tons brought back from last year's Antarctic hunt? "Scientific whaling" supplies a lucrative market in luxury food to Japan. Those tissue samples' true destinations are store shelves and restaurant tables.

The FAJ is desperate to maintain whale hunting in defiance of world opinion and its own slumping whale meat market. The FAJ makes a huge display about the cultural importance of whale meat, but only four percent of Japanese polled said they ate whale meat "sometimes" and an additional nine percent ate it "very rarely".

"What we are seeing here is a pattern of deceit and desperation on the part of government officials and pro-whaling interests to look bigger than they are," said Greenpeace campaigner Richard Page. Despite government claims that 75 percent of Japanese people favour a return to commercial whaling under controlled conditions, polling by a major Japanese newspaper shows that, in fact, only 47 percent of the Japanese public agree with whale hunting. This number has declined by seven percent since the last poll in 1993.