Whale meat as a health supplement or as a potential weapon in the fight against dementia — these are two of the novel ideas conjured up in Japan in a desperate attempt to keep alive the whale meat business with an eye to the future resumption of commercial whaling.

Balenine, a substance believed to be effective in combating fatigue and contained in abundance in whale meat, is the key to the survival initiative adopted by Kyodo Senpaku Co., a Tokyo-based whale meat processor and seller.

Kyodo Senpaku already produces dietary supplement products and nutritious drinks using whale-derived balenine as an ingredient. The company is also conducting research with Showa University on the possible use of balenine in the prevention of dementia.

Experiments on animals showed some beneficial effects so the research will be continued to explore the possible application to human cases, according to Kyodo Senpaku. “If used successfully, this may help not only to maintain demand for whale meat but also to lower health care costs,” a Kyodo Senpaku official said.

Whale meat was consumed by the Japanese as a valuable source of nutrition in the postwar period. However, as the variety of foods available in Japan grew with the country’s increasing wealth, consumption of whale meat declined.

In recent years, annual whale meat consumption in Japan has stayed at around 4,000-5,000 tons, a sharp fall from the peak of more than 200,000 tons in the early 1960s.

Since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) introduced a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, Japan has refrained from commercial whale hunting. But it has maintained a supply of whale meat through whaling activity conducted in the name of scientific research.

Amid growing anti-whaling protests, however, the number of whales caught by Japan’s whaling fleet has declined in recent years.

A further blow for the whale meat business came in March 2014, when the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan must halt its research whaling program in the Antarctic Ocean.

Japan suspended research whaling in the region last year, while continuing its research whaling in Japan’s coastal areas and the Northwestern Pacific.

Kyodo Senpaku decided this year to procure meat from a company planning to import around 2,400 tons from Iceland, which still engages in commercial whaling, in a purported bid to prevent a shortage of whale meat for its customers, including whale-serving restaurants and meat stores.

Over the years, Japan has continued to endure international criticism as the villain who stands against the global cause of protecting whales. Not only fishing companies but also big retailers handling whale meat have become targets of criticism by anti-whaling organizations.

A major supermarket chain operator acquired by a foreign company abandoned sales of whale meat immediately after the acquisition deal was clinched. Some other retailers have also washed their hands of the whale meat business out of concern over possible adverse effects on their overseas operations.

Meanwhile, the government continues to support research whaling by providing subsidies, as the controversial activity can no longer be financed through revenue from whale meat sales alone.

The prospect for an early resumption of commercial whaling has dimmed, as the IWC is hamstrung from taking action amid the continued standoff between the pro- and anti-whaling camps.

Novel ideas such as whale meat as a potential source of a wonder drug notwithstanding, the heat is on the government to map out a sustainable policy for an industry whose future looks increasingly uncertain.

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