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A whale of a shortsighted subsidy program

by and

BEPPU, Oita Pref. — After stepping off the train and onto the platform at Ogata station, in the Tosa area of Kochi Prefecture, Shikoku, travelers are greeted by a sign with two whales: “Welcome to Ogata, where the whales also greet you.”

The town features many coffee shops covered with whale pictures, stone whale benches and, at the harbor itself, a whale museum. Ogata is one of the major Japanese towns where people can engage in whale watching, and prides itself on its whales. But the whales are leaving.

The whales feed on sardines, whose numbers are in decline. Global warming also seems to have pushed the sardines and thus the whales into deeper waters. This means that whale-watching boats must travel further offshore.

This is bad news for Ogata. Moreover, the fuel costs involved in reaching the whales have increased. The town of Ogata, the whales, and the whale-watching industry, are all in peril.

Citing the large profits that the whale-watching industry grosses around the world, anti-whaling activists argue that a whale is worth more alive than dead. However, Ogata seems to provide a grimmer message. The value of a whale, dead or alive, becomes irrelevant if there are no whales left. Whale watching cannot save the whales since they are threatened by more than global warming. If environmentalists want to save the whales, then the real problem needs to be tackled: fishery subsidies.

The Japanese diet relies heavily on fish. Japan leads the world in subsidies to fisheries. According to the International Herald Tribune, as of 2007, almost ¥441.8 billion is handed out each year by the Fisheries Agency of Japan. Fish are thus caught and sold at an artificially low price, since the government covers some operating costs, thus encouraging overfishing — what economists will recognize as a tragedy of the commons.

Current levels of fishing are unsustainable in the long run. In the short run fish such as the sardines the whales also consume face an uncertain future.

As the whaling debate becomes more heated every year, environmentalists and anti-whaling activists continue their efforts to end whaling. Although their attempts attract media attention, they have, so far, failed. If activists want to save whales in addition to merely ending whaling, they also need to focus on the bureaucratic problem — to address the system that allows taxpayers’ money to flow into the fishing industry.

For instance, the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which oversees the whaling industry in Japan, currently has ¥3.2 billion in government subsidies in the form of a low-interest loan. If subsidies ended, not only would the ICR lose funding for its bankrupted whaling business, but monies to subsidize fishing fuel and labor costs would also be halted.

If fishermen want to learn how to make a living via their trade, then they need to learn a lesson from their counterparts across the Pacific Ocean.

For example, only a decade ago, the American fishing industry faced a crisis similar to that of the Japanese industry today. With inflated quota numbers and government subsidies, the fishing industry was turned into a classical tragedy of the commons tale, with fish stocks exploited and plummeting after years of neglect. However, certain industries, realizing that a change was necessary, turned to government- supervised Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), which functioned to privatize their particular sector, to guarantee that fishing would remain profitable and sustainable.

ITQs provide individual fishermen with a share of the Total Allowable Catch. ITQs can be bought, sold, traded or used to fish. At present, the main countries that use ITQs are New Zealand, Australia, Iceland and the U.S.

For example, in Alaska’s halibut industry, where fishermen use ITQs, the halibut season is open for months instead of days, thus enabling fishermen to fish when market value is at its highest. Furthermore, even if they do not reach their individual quotas, they can rest assured that no loss will occur since it will allow the fishery to grow, which will increase their share in the future.

Although Japan’s fishing industry in domestic waters accounts for only 24 percent of domestic production, privatization and ITQ use would assure a future for fishing communities. Already, the national tuna industry has collapsed, as will others unless measures are taken.

If the sardine numbers in Japanese waters were to collapse completely, the food chain in Japanese waters would be fatally damaged. Not only would the already exploited tuna lose their source of food, but further up the chain, the whales of Japan would lose their food source as well.

Although whaling poses a threat to whale numbers, a much more significant threat is government subsidies, which not only promote the hunting of the animals themselves but also lead to overfishing of their food supply.

Janell Duey is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. Her current major is Asia Pacific Management. Sources: www.iht.com/articles /2007/05/01/news/usfish.php — Japan’s annual subsidy amount www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph /story/0,22049,23203576-5001021,00.html — ICR annual subsidies