Amid international controversy, a fleet of ships will set sail from the port of Shimonoseki on Monday.
After departing the Yamaguchi Prefecture port, they will begin a mission that will enrage many, but perhaps hearten others. Supporters might call it a day that was 30 years in the making. Detractors will call it a step back for whale conservation efforts.
In a polarizing move, Japan will resume commercial whaling Monday following its withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission, breaking away from the organization’s worldwide moratorium on whale hunting enacted over three decades ago.
“We’ve been working so hard to resume commercial whaling, so in that respect we are very pleased that this specific goal has been achieved,” said Konomu Kubo, a spokesperson for Kyodo Senpaku Co., which sells whale meat.
There is a sense of responsibility that comes with the resumption of commercial whaling, he added, saying that “we don’t want to let our forebears’ efforts go down the drain.”
The government has vigorously defended whaling, citing its cultural and historical importance. Some regions have a long tradition of whaling, and the taste of its meat was etched into the public’s psyche following the war when it was the nation’s main source of protein.
Commercial whaling will be resumed only within the country’s exclusive economic zone — or 200 nautical miles from its shores.
Under the IWC’s whaling ban, ships had been hunting in areas such as the high seas of the Antarctic Ocean under the premise of the collection of data for conservation and sustainability. The “scientific research” was widely criticized internationally as a cover for commercial hunts and meat from the whales that were caught were then sold for consumption to the public.
Whaling for scientific purposes is permitted by the IWC, but the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that Japan’s practices could not be considered scientific research under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.
Tokyo has continuously blamed the IWC for failing to live up to its founding principles adopted in 1946, arguing that the international body is solely focused on conservation without allowing for “sustainable management” of marine resources — as stated in the convention.
“Much to our regret, it became apparent that the IWC did not intend to achieve the goals set forth in its Convention calling for the sustainable growth of the whaling industry, and that there was no place for differing opinions and positions within the organization,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in a statement released in December last year, following Japan’s announcement that it will leave the IWC.
Indeed, IWC member states were at loggerheads over the direction of the organization, frustrating both the pro- and anti-whaling camps.
“I’ve attended IWC meetings in the past, but we would just talk past each other … and I didn’t get the impression that there was hope for much progress,” Kubo said.
Some lauded Japan’s exit as a deft diplomatic move that will pave the way for the IWC to focus on conservation efforts, rather than having to be locked into a stalemate over the issue of commercial whaling.
“The IWC is migrating from becoming a whaler’s club to a whale conservation club,” said Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “Japan’s recognition of that is part of what led them to exit. By their exit, they are facilitating and accelerating that transition.”
That said, Tokyo will continue to stay on as an observer at the IWC, which the government believes will allow it to fulfill its obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to “work through the appropriate international organizations” for the conservation and management of whales.
Some experts have differing opinions.
The convention is based on the premise that whaling operations will be conducted “under the legal obligations and regulations imposed by international organizations,” said Atsushi Ishii, associate professor at Tohoku University and an expert on whaling issues.
Given that Japan — under its observer status — will not be shouldering those legal obligations, Ishii thinks that the country’s commercial whaling operations will be illegal under the U.N. convention.
“One important aspect of the whaling issue that people in Japan seem to miss is that whales that swim the high seas belong to all of humankind” and not the party who happens to hunt it, Ishii said.
“If Japan wants to continue commercial whaling, the country has to do it under the consensus and understanding of international society in general, given that Japan will be taking something that belongs to everyone.”
The government has insisted that they would do their part to ensure the promotion of the “sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence.”
The Fisheries Agency plans to resume commercial whaling to make the most of this maritime resource — just like any other kind of maritime resource — but under “rules that will allow for sustainable whaling,” an agency official in charge of the whaling division said.
Still, despite the reassurance from the government that their whaling operations will be sustainable, activists have voiced their criticism.
Hisayo Takada, program director of Greenpeace Japan said, “We are pleased that the Government of Japan has announced an end to its whaling in the Antarctic,” but added that “we are concerned that they are walking away from the international conservation body, the IWC.”
“Whales are directly affected by climate change, plastic pollution, oil exploration, industrial fishing and habitat loss. While these problems require time to be resolved, there are also threats that can be immediately removed, such as commercial whaling, which has been banned internationally for over 30 years,” she added, before calling on the government to continue discussions with the global community.
“Japan leaving the IWC and defying international law to pursue its commercial whaling ambitions is renegade, retrograde and myopic, it is undermining its international reputation for an industry whose days are so clearly numbered, to produce a product for which demand has plummeted,” said Kitty Block, president of Humane Society International.
The question certainly remains over just how much of an appetite for whale meat there is in Japan.
At its peak in the 1960s, the consumption of whale meat reached as high as over 200,000 tons.
As the nation embraced a more Western-style diet in line with its economic growth, whale consumption steadily declined. In recent years consumption has been negligible, with some statistics showing that a mere 36 grams are consumed per person on an annual basis.
Proponents of whaling argue that the decline has been caused by a shortage of supply.
“I don’t necessarily think that demand has decreased — the decrease in supply was what caused people to stop eating whale meat,” said Kyodo Senpaku’s Kubo.
Kubo hopes that prices will be pushed down with the resumption of commercial whaling and that new supply channels will open up, making whale meat more accessible for the general public.
But whether commercial whaling can become an economically viable business remains to be seen, and some are expressing their doubts over the long-term future of the industry.
“Whaling has been for years an economic loser. … There had been government subsidies diverted to prop up this failing industry, and despite all that, the Japanese people have shown that they have no yen for whale meat,” said Ramage, the director at IFAW.
That lack of appetite for whale meat might also reflect a wider sentiment about whaling in general among the Japanese public.
Ramage said that Japanese are neither pro- or anti-whaling, but that “they are anti-anti-whaling,” pointing to a survey conducted by IFAW and Greenpeace in 2000.
The poll found that 55 percent of 1185 respondents were neutral about commercial whaling, while 14 percent opposed it and 11 percent strongly supported it.
Incidents involving anti-whaling activist group Sea Shepherd in 2006, when the organization clashed with Japanese whaling vessels, became a symbolic incident that to a large extent led to the rise of the “anti-anti-whaling” sentiment, said Tohoku University’s Ishii.
But underlying that is a fundamental disinterest in the issue, he added.
“People might respond favorably in polls, but the issue probably doesn’t matter much to them either way,” he said.
“Not many people eat whale meat anymore, after all.”