Whaling town Taiji dreams for miracle IWC reprieve

by Michael Heazle

TAIJI, Wakayama Pref. — Nestled between clear Pacific waters and richly forested mountains and valleys, Taiji and it’s pristine surroundings have remained largely unspoiled thanks to the town’s isolation in southeast Wakayama and the community’s long-standing relationship with the sea and its resources.

But all is not well in this little paradise and things look to worsen because of an ongoing row in the International Whaling Commission over its protection of the minke, a whale species considered nonendangered.

An IWC ban has prevented Taiji and Japan’s three other remaining whaling communities from coastal hunting of minke whales for more than a decade.

As jobs disappear and populations decline, the towns of Taiji, Wadaura in Chiba Prefecture, Ayukawa in Miyagi Prefecture and Abashiri in Hokkaido, which claim whaling has been their cultural mainstay and livelihood since the early 17th century, feel time is running out.

Taiji’s population is just over 4,000 today from nearly 4,400 in 1988, when the ban claimed more than 50 jobs and later helped scuttle Taiji’s three whaling companies.

In the 1960s, Taiji had 30 designated Small Type Coastal Whaling ships hunting small whales like the favored minke. Now there are only two ships that occasionally hunt pilot and baird’s beaked whales under quotas set by the government.

“Whaling was . . . and still is . . . our most important industry. The (IWC) moratorium has taken away many people’s jobs and is forcing people, especially the younger ones, to leave. . . . Now Taiji is mostly old people,” Taiji Whale Museum director Yoji Kita said.

The IWC adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982 reportedly in order to allow time for more reliable stock estimates and the development of a new management program to safeguard against overexploitation.

By 1991, the IWC Scientific Committee had devised the Revised Management Procedure and estimated that the minke, with a worldwide population of around 1 million — was not endangered and able to sustain limited harvests under the RMP.

But in spite of the committee’s work, environmental groups successfully lobbied the United States and other countries to delay implementation of the RMP and reject Japan’s repeated requests for a small annual minke quota. Japan currently is authorized to and does hunt minke under its so-called scientific whaling program, but not in its waters.

Nongovernment organizations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have been considered instrumental in helping to maintain the moratorium and also in preventing IWC approval of Japan’s requests on the grounds that there is still not enough research available to allow any resumption of whaling, a position often referred to as the “precautionary principle.”

“The NGOs and antiwhaling governments at the IWC are operating partly under a sensible precautionary principle,” former Greenpeace activist Paul Spong said.

“So much is unknown regarding the details of cetacean populations, their distribution, behavior and even basic biology, that it makes good sense to be very careful before allowing renewed exploitation of protected whales,” he said.

Critics charge, however, that environmental groups like Greenpeace intentionally exaggerate the risks of regulated hunts and are equivocal regarding alleged shortcomings in the Scientific Committee’s research.

“Disinformation is an intentional strategy that has been part of the Greenpeace antiwhaling campaign for more than 20 years,” claimed former Canadian IWC representative Dan Goodman, who now serves as an adviser to Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research.

“If Greenpeace told the truth about whales and whaling, the public would stop donating money. Even the former director of Greenpeace International described their campaigns as hype, half-truths and posturing,” Goodman said, referring to comments made by Pete Wilkins in the Dec. 10 issue of the magazine Nature.

Leading whaling opponents like the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Britain and France have either called for, or support, a permanent ban on commercial hunting and have shown little sympathy for the hardships small communities like Taiji face.

Since 1986, Japan has submitted a large number of studies by foreign and Japanese scholars to the IWC explaining the social, religious and cultural importance of whaling to STCW communities. After looking at the moratorium’s impact on Taiji and Ayukawa, one paper concluded, “. . . in the absence of any practical alternatives, the fabric of social relationships begins to unravel. The end of whaling means the end of these towns as viable communities.”

After visiting Taiji in March 1996, New Zealand’s IWC commissioner, J.K. McKlay, declared that the village remained “prosperous” and had a tourist industry. McKlay also noted the community’s “inability to continue a centuries-old whaling tradition and pass that tradition on to future generations” was a problem, but added, “Right around the world there are communities that have ceased traditional practices for all sorts of conservation, cultural and other reasons.”

Taiji locals like 74 year-old Shimaisaburo Hamai, however, don’t see things quite the same way. A former harpoonist on a Taiji whaler during the 60s, he believes the town is far from prosperous and has little chance of becoming so without returning to whaling.

The biggest earner for Taiji and the other STCW towns was always the whaling industry and the fresh meat it provided.

In 1966, when vessels from the town hunted for large whales as well, more than 70 percent of Taiji’s tax revenue came from whaling. But by 1990, whalers accounted for only 3 percent of the local tax base, which, due to the dwindling population and lack of alternative pursuits, continues to contract.

“Hunting and eating whales is important not only for Taiji but for the whole country — it’s part of our culture,” Hamai claimed.

At this year’s IWC meeting in Grenada later this month, as at every meeting since the moratorium took effect, Japan will request an “interim relief allocation” of 50 minke whales to be taken inside Japanese waters from a North Pacific stock the IWC estimates at around 25,000.

However, Japan’s request will most likely be rejected once again by the commission on the grounds that no commercial whaling can be permitted until the IWC agrees to implement the RMP, which, although adopted in 1994, remains in limbo allegedly because the majority of member countries support the contention of NGOs like Greenpeace that the killing of whales is morally wrong.

“I certainly agree that there is no need to kill whales, period. Whales are far too interesting as live animals for us to enjoy, and try to understand, for us to demean ourselves by abusing them. The moral issue is simple, not complex,” Spong said.

Like Japan’s other STCW communities, Taiji is stuck between a rock and a hard place because the IWC makes no provision for small coastal whaling communities.

According to the commission, there are only three categories of whaling — commercial, scientific and aboriginal subsistence — but the distinction between commercial and aboriginal whaling seems unclear and often arbitrary. The U.S. opposes coastal whaling in Japan and Norway by small economically dependent communities that want to hunt the minke, but supports the rights of American Indians to hunt bowhead (listed by the U.S. as endangered) and gray whales.

“Denying Japan’s request (for an interim quota) is in fact a gross injustice based on artificially classifying Japanese small type whaling as commercial whaling so that it fits under the umbrella of the moratorium, as opposed to aboriginal subsistence whaling, which is not included under the moratorium,” Goodman said, noting whaling is as culturally important to Japan as it is to other aboriginals.

“In fact, there is little substantive difference between the aboriginal whaling in Greenland, the U.S. and Russia, which the IWC permits, and the small-type coastal whaling in Japan.”

Yoji Kita believes the main problem is that most foreigners simply don’t understand the issues or the difficulties faced by Japan’s STCW towns and is frustrated by what he sees as “cultural imperialism” on the part of antiwhaling activists.

Kita, like many in Taiji, holds little hope for this year’s meeting in Grenada and feels there is little cause to be optimistic about the future.

“People in the U.S. or Europe don’t know the situation here or why whaling is so important to us. For the Japanese, food is from God and we give thanks for what we take from the sea. . . . This is our culture, so why should we change?”