At the government’s Fisheries Agency in Tokyo, which drives the prowhaling campaign in Japan, there is thinly disguised contempt for the antiwhaling finger-wagging of New Zealand, a country with boundless rich farmland and a tiny population to support.

In contrast, Japan’s food self-sufficiency is extremely low — now just 40 percent, down from 73 percent in 1965.

What right does New Zealand have to tell us how to use the global sea commons, asks Akira Nakamae, the FA’s deputy director general. “New Zealand, Australia and Britain are the top antiwhaling countries. The reason they are involved is just egotism. It is quite simple: The countries that are not involved should stay out of the problem. In the high seas, we divide up all resources, so why not whales?”

The FA has positioned itself very successfully inside Japan as the embattled defender of the nation’s rights to an equitable share of marine resources. Whaling is the rhetorical line in the sand, beyond which lies that beloved staple of the Japanese dinner table: tuna. Adding to their siege mentality, FA bureaucrats also believe they face a growing war for dwindling resources with China.

“If we lose on whales, what will happen next?” asks Nakamae. “It is not just us taking the fish. We take 6 million tons of fish a year, which is about 5 percent of the total global catch of 120 million tons. China alone takes 40 million tons; approaching half. In the last decade, the amount of fish China takes has exploded.”

Japan has indeed scaled down its marine fishing, but brokers operating for giant trading companies increasingly purchase fish from other countries. In fact, many of the 132 tuna boats recently scrapped in a voluntary agreement by Japan have ended up in China and Taiwan — whose fishermen help supply the Japanese market.

Nevertheless, the voracious and increasingly affluent market of 1.3 billion people next door to Japan is real and needs to be considered as part of the background to the whaling debate. The possibility that within a few decades tuna may disappear from Japan’s dinner plates is a specter regularly invoked by the nation’s media, and to this must now be added a new bogeyman: China.

Then, along with these concerns, it’s necessary to factor in the hungry whales themselves.

The FA claims that the minke (the smallest of the whales) and several other species (including the humpback) have recovered and are now gobbling fish at such a rate that whales consume five times more fish than the world’s entire human population.

Targeting whales for decimating the world’s dwindling fish stocks, however, has been compared by one environmentalist to blaming woodpeckers for the destruction of the rain forests. The results of a research project, published in the Nov. 2006 edition of the journal Science, forecast that, largely through overfishing, these marine resources will completely collapse by 2050 — a problem Japan’s prowhalers are apt to term a “lack of balance” in the oceans.

“Whales eat a lot of fish,” argues Yasukazu Hamada, a lawmaker in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party who is one of the country’s leading whaling lobbyists. “We have to return balance to the oceans by cutting down their numbers.”

Hamada and others of a like mind believe that Japan has compromised by staying in the International Whaling Commission and by adhering — at least officially — to its 1986 commercial whaling moratorium, while spending billions of yen a year collecting scientific data on the oceans. Thanks in part to this, whales are now among the most researched animals in the world, which ironically makes it easier for prowhalers to argue that hunting can restart with minimal risk to stocks. And some conservationists support them.

“It is quite clear that there is minimal risk to whale stocks from hunting,” says Tetsu Sato, professor of ecology and environmental sciences at Nagano University.

“We have a method and a system to sustainably manage wildlife and resources — so why don’t we try it?”

Far from withering under global pressure, the prowhaling lobby in Japan is growing stronger and more confident that its scientific data is correct.

“As long as the antiwhaling countries cannot show us that we are mistaken, we will continue to follow this policy,” says Nakamae. “We will keep going until the world understands this.”

See related stories:
Vitriol vies with science
Resentments sustain a moribund meat trade
The price of stalemate
Deadlock is dominant in whaling’s ‘petty parlor game’
From the inside looking out . . .

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