Japanese laws are ill-equipped to protect marine mammals and need an overhaul if these animals are to receive attention akin to their terrestrial counterparts, according to a leading wildlife expert.

While experts from around the world discuss whaling questions at the ongoing International Whaling Commission conference in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan has significant domestic issues that receive scant attention but need to be ironed out, according to Shinichi Hayama, an assistant professor at the Nippon Veterinary and Animal Science University in Tokyo.

For one thing, marine mammals receive short shrift.

“The systems for protecting marine and land animals are completely different,” he said.

“The Environment Ministry looks after land animals while marine animals are treated as ‘resources’ — whether or not they can be used and even if they are threatened by extinction.”

In Japan, marine mammals fall under the purview of the Fisheries Agency and are regarded as resources, while land mammals are protected by the Wildlife Protection and Hunting Law, unless permission to hunt them is granted.

Hayama said the current system is the result of the unique historical situation in Japan, where few people hunted and many fished.

Until Japan opened up to the West 150 years ago, hunting was a pastime largely monopolized by the ruling class.

“Scarecrows were banned around the Kanto Plain because they would scare away birds that the shogun would hunt,” Hayama said.

But cheap rifles made available after the Meiji Restoration and overzealous hunters drove the Japanese wolf, Japanese crested ibis and other land animals to extinction, he said.

As a result, a system to protect land mammals was established, while strategies for the management of marine resources remained unchanged and became outdated.

Hayama suggests that sea mammals should be overseen jointly by the Environment Ministry, which would address them from a wildlife preservation perspective, and the Fisheries Agency, which could manage them from the angle of sustainable use.

This would not be unprecedented, as the Fisheries Agency is to relinquish its responsibility for dugongs and five types of seals to the Environment Ministry under a revision of the Wildlife Protection Law during the current Diet session.

The Red Data Book — a national inventory of endangered species — outlines threatened land mammals, but does not cover marine mammals, Hayama pointed out.

According to a study by the Mammalogical Society of Japan, more than 70 percent of the 45 or so sea mammals inhabiting waters near Japan are threatened by extinction, compared with just over 40 percent of the country’s land mammals.

While Hayama believes that whaling research has its merits, he casts a skeptical eye on Japan’s research whaling program and its campaign for the culling of Antarctic minke whales.

“The government just wants to take whales in the name of ecological management,” he said.

Rather, Hayama suggests that the small demand for whale meat could be met with minke and other whales that drown in coastal fishing nets.

The government contends that a jump in the population of certain whales, especially minke, has reduced fish stocks and in turn impaired the prospects of recovery in the number of some endangered great whales that have similar diets, such as the blue whale.

Hayama believes this argument is ridiculous.

Anyone with a modicum of ecological knowledge knows that culling whales can’t put things right, he said.

Even if minke whales are culled, penguins and seals would likely fill their niche in the food chain, he added.

“Increasing the blue whale population is not that simple.”

If Japan really is worried about declining fish stocks, the government should instead review its age-old policy of reclaiming coastal wetlands — the spawning grounds for fish, Hayama said.

Another important issue that escapes the media spotlight is the annual catch of nearly 20,000 coastal whales and dolphins.

“This issue is actually bigger (than that of large whales), because the catch of small whales is not regulated,” Hayama said.

Though populations of land animals such as deer or monkeys are culled, there is a system under which residents have a say in the decision-making process, he said.

“But in the case of marine animals, we know absolutely nothing. We don’t know how many there are or how many are being taken or the rationale for this number.

“There is no mechanism for us to participate in the discussion nor reason for the government to release that kind of data.”

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