Wars over whaling

Japan’s annual whaling season is currently under way with the inevitable lurid reports and tangled accusations. The history of conflict between Japan’s whaling boats and anti-whaling protesters has not only gained newspaper headlines, but has inspired its own TV program, “Whale Wars,” on the American cable television station Animal Planet, now in its fifth season. The actions of both whale-hunting supporters and detractors have reached absurd proportions. Both sides should return to reasonable dialogue.

While officially agreeing to a moratorium on whaling, Japanese whaling companies have continued to kill whales in the South Pacific by taking advantage of a loophole for research purposes. If the current hunting is really being done, as stated, for scientific purposes, the results should be opened to public and professional scrutiny, as is done with all serious scientific research. Killing whales for research is volatile topic with international importance, so it deserves a clear explanation that the general public has easy access to. So far, nothing like that has happened.

This year, the Japanese government allowed ¥2.28 billion from funds allocated for recovery from the earthquake and tsunami to be spent on the whaling expedition in hopes of helping the Tohoku economy, where some of the ships are based. That may not be much out of the ¥12 trillion allocated for recovery, but this whaling subsidy provides little benefit to coastal communities and stymies efforts to reconstruct genuinely sustainable industries. That money could have been used for many other purposes.

This year’s confrontations have escalated in intensity. Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha, the company leading whaling missions, filed a lawsuit last year in United States federal court against the anti-whaling group, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The whaling company lawsuit accuses the activists of engaging in activities that could cause injury to crew members and damage to vessels.

Resolving the issue in courts would be reasonable, but unfortunately, the actions have been taking place in international waters, outside most jurisdictions, where the law is as undecided as the weather. The Japanese government’s placing Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson on Interpol’s international wanted list seems a fanciful ploy, since most countries around the world have banned whaling and are unlikely to turn Mr. Watson over to anyone.

The Sea Shepherd boats attempting to stop the whalers have increased the level of their engagement this year. Reportedly, they are using laser beams and butyric acid, a dangerous-sounding material that basically provides the bad smell of rancid butter, to harass and stop the whaling expeditions. They have also, in the past, rammed whaling boats and boarded the whalers in open seas. Japanese whaling ships have replied in kind. Those actions cross the line from peaceful protest and reasonable monitoring to violent confrontation. Any action that could harm a crew member on either side cannot be justified.

The whale wars are moving high-tech as well, showing again that both sides are very well funded. This year, the Sea Shepherd, according to one of its press releases, is deploying drones to help track the whaling ships.

With GPS coordinates and the ability to take video and still images, the drones seem useful to witness and report what is going on. Documentation rather than propaganda, though, is essential. The world deserves to see what is happening, but also to understand why, and to do both more dispassionately.

This year, three activists from the environmental group Forest Rescue Australia have already been captured and held prisoner after boarding one of the whaling boats, Shonan Maru No. 2. Their fate is still being debated, though Japan has seemingly decided, wisely, to return them to Australian authorities without filing criminal charges. The activists may be stuck on the boat until the end of the whaling season, though, which will perhaps be punishment, or education, enough.

More importantly, the importance of whaling must be questioned. Last year, Japan only caught about 18 percent of its self-imposed quota of some 1,000 whales in the Antarctic Ocean. The traditional custom of eating whale meat has considerably declined. Many reports show that whale meat from whales killed last year is piling up in refrigerated warehouses. All of the facts concerning the stock of whale meat should be made public.

If whale meat were really a cheap source of daily, delicious meals, as is claimed, it would be found in every supermarket in Japan. Meat from those 170 or so whales is, in fact, rarely sold.

Whale meat was surely an important part of Japan’s heritage, and a major source of protein in the lean times after World War II. However, its continued consumption, for either culinary, dietary or cultural reasons, hardly seems compelling at this point.

Continuing the whale hunts means Japan will continue to pay dearly in international diplomatic costs for its right to maintain a tradition that extends far beyond the borders of the country’s culture yet is no longer central to daily life here at home.