KUROHIME, Nagano Pref. — When I turned on my TV to both BBC World and CNN this morning, I was shocked and saddened by the sight of a minke whale and calf being winched up the ramp of a Japanese factory ship in the Antarctic Ocean.
The sight of a dead whale doesn’t shock me because I’ve seen thousands. However, to see obvious and irrefutable evidence that Japanese whalers had crossed the line to killing calves, and probably a mother and calf, was too much.
I first sailed aboard a whaler in 1965 from Coal Harbor in a deep fjord in northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I was an observer with the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, Arctic Biological Station, and I had come to learn how to take data and samples from large whales.
The Canadian firm B.C. Packers was in partnership with Taiyo Co. of Japan to take sei and sperm whales. The oil from the blubber and the whale meal, which was processed from guts and bones, went to Canada, while the meat was carefully processed and frozen and shipped to Japan for human consumption.
After spending a month at Coal Harbor, where I made special friends with the Japanese whalers because I could speak a little Japanese (having just spent 2 1/2 years in Japan studying martial arts), I was sent to the small harbor of Blandford, Nova Scotia. Here, a joint Canadian-Norwegian company had begun a hunt for fin whales.
I spent eight months at Blandford, and was shocked by the wasteful methods of flensing and by the fact that the meat was being sold as pet food. I made myself unpopular by expressing this shock and by taking and showing photographs of fin whale cows and calves that had been killed and towed to land. It was against the rules of the International Whaling Commission to kill such animals, but nobody seemed to care much back in 1965.
I then got shipped up to the Arctic to do research on seals, which suited me just fine. But in 1966, I was recalled south. The Japanese company Kyokuyo was starting a joint venture at Dildo, Newfoundland, to harvest fin whales for human food. I was to supervise the biological sampling by new technicians at the base and to sail aboard the catcher No. 17 Kyomaru as an observer.
I was deeply impressed by the skill and integrity of the Japanese whalers at that time, which is one of the main reasons that I came to Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, in 1978 to spend a year there in researching a historical novel on Japanese whaling.
In January 1980, I was invited to sail to the Antarctic to join the whaling fleet down there as an unpaid and totally unrestricted observer.
I was winched aboard the Nisshin Maru No. 3 on Feb. 5, 1980. They had taken 44 minke whales that day. I was aboard the No. 1 Kyomaru on March 1 when we took the last minke of the season. This was close to the end of commercial pelagic whaling.
When we returned to Japan aboard the Nisshin Maru No. 3, there was enough whale meat in the freezers to make a meal for 100 million people. The whalers were proud of that.
During that time, I saw well over 1,000 minke whales either being shot (I made trips on all four catchers) or being processed on the factory ship’s deck. At no time did I see a calf or a lactating cow being chased, killed or cut up.
Having lived with Inuit hunters in Canada, I could see nothing wrong in taking marine mammals for food. In the Antarctic especially, there were plentiful minke whales, thousands of them, and in no way could the species be called endangered.
In the past, I have made myself pretty unpopular abroad in speaking out in defense of Japan taking whales for food, as long as the whalers abided by a scientific quota and observed IWC rules.
This year, when it was announced that Antarctic research whaling operations intended to take 50 humpback whales, I wrote a personal letter of protest to a senior Japanese fisheries official. There are plenty of humpbacks, but of all the whales, this one is the darling of nonhunting observers, with each whale easily identified by its natural markings. It made no sense to kill them. Anybody could predict the angry international response to such a plan, even from friends and sympathizers of Japanese whalers.
Japan is not the only whaling nation. Many forget, or do not know, that the United States pushed through a quota of 50 Arctic right whales per year for five years for their Alaskan whalers. Arctic right whales, otherwise known as bowheads, are in far fewer numbers than humpbacks. Norwegians and Russians are among several other nations that hunt whales for human food.
However, with this new lack of judgment in taking a minke calf, which no boatswain directing the movements of the ship from the crow’s nest, and certainly no harpooner worth his salt could mistake for an adult, I feel I can no longer justify further support for Japan’s Antarctic whaling. By the way, I am British-born, but a citizen of Japan.
Perhaps one answer would be to preserve the tradition and skills of whaling by a very limited, well-observed and controlled coastal hunt. That is a decision Japan must make for itself.
With rising fuel costs, with tons of frozen whale meat stored unused in warehouses, and with anger at home and abroad with Japan’s Antarctic whaling now so intense, I, a longtime friend of Japanese whalers, join many others in asking that the whaling ships return, that emotions be put aside, and that an open and honest debate over the future of whaling be planned.
C. W. Nicol’s column, Old Nic’s Note book, appears on the Nature page on the first Wednesday of every month.