Japanese whaling fleets set sail Monday to hunt whales commercially for the first time in 31 years, a day after Tokyo formally left the International Whaling Commission.
As an IWC member, Japan halted commercial whaling in 1988. But it continued hunting whales for what it claims were research purposes, a practice criticized internationally as a cover for commercial whaling.
On Monday morning the Nisshin Maru, a whale factory ship belonging to Kyodo Senpaku Co., and two other whalers left the port of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to conduct offshore whaling of minke, sei and Bryde’s whales.
Five small vessels from six operators also left Kushiro, Hokkaido, to conduct coastal hunting of minke whales.
The fleet caught two minke whales and brought them back to Kushiro later in the day.
To prevent overhunting, the Fisheries Agency has set a quota of 227 whales for commercial whaling through late December — 52 minke, 150 Bryde’s and 25 sei whales. The agency said the quota was calculated on the basis that it would not adversely impact stocks even if Japan kept hunting the whales for 100 years.
“We will conduct commercial whaling based on scientific grounds and appropriate resource management,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura said at a news conference.
“We hope it will get on track as quickly as possible, rejuvenate the community and lead to the handover of our country’s rich whaling culture to the next generation,” Nishimura said.
A ceremony held in Shimonoseki to mark the restart of commercial whaling was attended by some 200 people. “From today, I’d like whalers to catch whales by observing the quota, and aim for revival of the whaling industry,” fisheries minister Takamori Yoshikawa said at the event.
“We will endeavor to live up to the expectations of many people,” said Masaomi Tsunekawa, head of the Nisshin Maru fleet.
In Kushiro, Takashi Takeuchi, 40-year-old captain of a whaling vessel out of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, told reporters before leaving port that he “felt uneasy” about the outlook for commercial whaling in Japan, where whale meat consumption is at a fraction of past levels, but hopes “to catch fresh whales and provide them to consumers.”
Annual domestic consumption of whale meat was around 200,000 tons in the 1960s, but the figure has fallen to around 5,000 tons in recent years, according to government data.
The agency said Monday that annual whale meat supply from commercial whaling is expected to be lower than that from scientific whaling. “Following the restart (of commercial whaling), I hope younger generations will get accustomed to eating whale meat,” said Hideki Abe, a 22-year-old crew member of a whaling ship out of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
The IWC was founded in 1948 and Japan joined it in 1951. It was originally composed of whaling nations, but increasing membership by anti-whaling countries led the IWC to adopt a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982.
Japan has long sought to lift the moratorium, and finally withdrew from the IWC on Sunday after the organization voted down its proposal last September to resume commercial whaling of species considered abundant such as minke whales. It was the first time the country had left a major international organization in its postwar history.
Japan says it will hunt whales in nearby waters and within its exclusive economic zone but not in the Antarctic Ocean, where the country had carried out whaling for what it describes as research purposes.
Japan started such whaling in the Antarctic and northwest Pacific oceans in 1987 and in 1994, respectively, although it was subject to international criticism.
While scientific whaling is recognized by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, meat from the captured whales was sold domestically, fueling global condemnation that commercial whaling was being conducted under the guise of science.
Nevertheless, Japan continued its research, gathering data it believed would be useful for determining quotas when it reverted to commercial whaling at a future point.