A Japanese whaling ship’s Jan. 6 collision with antiwhaling group Sea Shepherd’s high-speed boat made headlines in Japan, Australia and other countries, illustrating the keen global interest in the issue.
Although antiwhaling nations routinely condemn Japan’s annual hunt, they and whaling countries alike also denounce the Washington state-based animal conservation group’s violent acts, including efforts to disrupt the whalers operating in the Antarctic Ocean, most recently off Commonwealth Bay near Australia.
Following are questions and answers about the dispute:
What justification does Japan cite for its whaling activities amid the predictable international outcry?
The International Whaling Commission, the top watchdog with 88 member countries, imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 because of a sharp decrease in stocks. But Japan’s so-called research whaling is allowed under IWC rules, and the lethal research hunts have been held every year since 1987.
Japan’s research whaling is in compliance with Article 8 of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, under which the IWC was set up, said Fisheries Agency official Toshinori Uoya. Article 8 stipulates countries that signed the convention can allow their nationals to kill, take and treat whales for the purpose of research, and such killing is exempt from curbs under the convention.
The antiwhaling countries condemn Japan’s research hunt, saying it is really commercial whaling because the meat is sold on the market.
Norway and Iceland engage in outright commercial whaling; the IWC moratorium is nonbinding.
Apart from the sentiments of animal rights advocates who regard whales as the smartest mammal next to humans and arguments by whaling countries that hunting is a part of food culture, tradition and history, whaling and antiwhaling countries are not in agreement over whether whale populations are threatened with extinction and need to be protected.
Where do nations stand?
Japan, Norway, Iceland, South Korea, and many African and Caribbean countries advocate whaling. Foes include the United States, Australia and many European and South American states. Antiwhaling countries have argued that African countries side with Japan’s position because they get financial aid from Tokyo.
Could whaling foes actually agree to allow hunts if it was demonstrated that stocks are plentiful?
That would be a tall order.
Scientists’ approaches to determine species numbers are varied.
Antiwhaling countries argue whales need to be conserved without providing empirical evidence to prove they are becoming scarce. Whaling countries argue they kill only species that are abundant, citing the minimum estimate released by the international community six years ago.
Even if scientists agree on population numbers, many in the West still resent the slaughter of mammals considered highly intelligent. And Japan won’t back down from its argument that eating whale is part of its food culture. The meat, however, is now a delicacy and is not consumed daily.
According to statistics from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, there were 4,918 tons of frozen whale meat stockpiled as of November. That compares with the entire seafood stockpile of 1.2 million tons, including 63,414 tons of tuna and 60,475 tons of saury.
Critics argue consumers shy away from whales partly because of concern over excessive mercury, but a Fisheries Agency official said whales caught in the Antarctic Ocean have a mercury density of 0.027 parts per million, far lower than the 0.3 ppm danger level set by the government, which warns pregnant women not to eat mercury-containing seafood too regularly.
Japan argues the IWC needs to study whale populations to identify those in need of protection. Japan claims the whales it kills are used as samples to check age and sex to estimate the population, age and sex distribution, future growth in numbers and other information as precisely as possible.
Antiwhaling countries argue that such research does not have to be lethal. But Japan says killing is necessary to collect ear wax, which has annual growth rings, to pinpoint the exact age of whales.
Also, Japan is cutting open whale stomachs to check what they feed on to study the impact they have on the oceanic food pyramid.
Fisheries Agency official Uoya says Japan submits research results to the IWC Scientific Committee every year and the committee welcomes the results.
How does the IWC Scientific Committee operate?
Scientists from many nations participate, as part of annual IWC meeting every June, in efforts to find the most precise ways to ascertain whale species populations that can be subject to agreement.
In the case of Antarctic minke whales, which are said to be one of the most abundant and still subject to the moratorium, Japan has harpooned the mammals for research in hopes of persuading the international community that the species is not endangered.
Japan caught 679 Antarctic minke whales in 2008, or 68 percent of the nation’s entire catch that year, Uoya said.
The last time the Scientific Committee agreed on the Antarctic minke population was in 1990, putting the number at 760,000. It has been trying to update the number to glean the population trend.
According to the committee’s report issued at the annual meeting last June, counting approaches were narrowed down to the “OK method” and “SPLINTR method.”
In both methods, researchers look at whale pods to estimate the total population, but the approach taken for the estimation differs.
The results gleaned in Japan’s research whaling are not used in either method, said a non-Japanese researcher at the Fisheries Agency’s Institute of Cetacean Research who asked not to be named.
Via the OK method, the Antarctic minke population was estimated at 1.287 million in 1991 and 688,000 in 2004. By the SPLINTR method, it was 747,000 in 1991 and 461,000 in 2004. The researcher at the institute said the Science Committee will either rely on one of the two counting methods or something in the middle at this June’s meeting in Agadir, Morocco.
Would it be fair to say the international community can agree there were at least 461,000 Antarctic minke whales in 2004? If so, would the Japanese catch be considered too big?
Members of the Science Committee, including those from antiwhaling countries, feel the 461,000 is a fair count, the institute researcher said.
The 679 Antarctic minkes caught in 2008 would account for less than 0.2 percent of the 2004 estimate of 461,000, and thus even though the two numbers represent different years, Japan’s catch would not appear to threaten the species’ survival, Uoya and the researcher said.
What do antiwhaling countries say about the population estimates and minke catches?
In the IWC’s general meetings, representatives of member countries never exchange opinions on the validity of either the OK or SPLINTR methods, the institute researcher said, adding he doesn’t know why.
What have politicians in antiwhaling countries recently said?
Australia condemned Sea Shepherd’s confrontational approach and hopes to pressure Japan to stop whaling through diplomatic efforts.
Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett said, “We remain absolutely and totally opposed to the killing of whales in the name of science,” according to the transcript of remarks posted on the ministry’s Web site Jan. 8.
Apparently referring to the Japanese whaler’s collision that led to the sinking of the Sea Shepherd speedboat, Garrett said, “We do not believe that violent activities in the Southern Ocean are in anyone’s interests in resolving this extremely important and critical issue.”
Garrett and other Australian Cabinet members mulled the possibility of pursuing legal action by filing a complaint over Japan’s research whaling to the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.