Following its withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Japan resumed commercial whaling for the first time in 31 years in July 2019. Whale meat supply, however, has fallen by more than 30 percent from levels prior to the withdrawal.
The government has curbed the quotas for whale hunting as a consequence of having to retreat from abundant fishing grounds in the Antarctic Ocean, with whalers continuing on a rocky road in their pursuit of trying to turn a profit.
Whale meat, though, remains more of a luxury for consumers because of its more expensive price tag compared to cheaper choices of fish, a favorite of the masses.
“Whale food orders are higher than before” as a result of the attention the resumed commercial whaling has brought to the meat, said Shintaro Sato, the owner of Taruichi, an izakaya (Japanese pub) offering whale dishes in Shinjuku in central Tokyo.
However, the number of merchants is limited, even in Tokyo.
“I hope the prices come down and that more eateries will be able to offer whale meat on their menus,” he said.
On the other hand, an executive from a Chiba Prefecture-based fresh fish retailer that deals with whale meat at shopping centers and department stores said that consumption has not changed since commercial whaling resumed.
The executive added that commercial institutions, aware of the activities of anti-whaling groups, remain cautious about dealing in whale meat and none want to support Japanese whaling culture by selling it in large quantities.
The withdrawal from IWC made it impossible for Japan to hunt whales in the Antarctic, limiting its fishing territory to within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). To prevent overfishing, Japan capped the annual quota to 383, about 60 percent of the actual number under the research whaling program in 2018.
The 2019 catch almost reached the quota limit, but the actual whale meat supply totaled only around 1,600 tons, down sharply from around 2,500 tons per year when Japan was engaging in research whaling.
Last year’s supply consisted of about 1,430 tons of primarily Bryde’s whale that was caught offshore, and about 200 tons of primarily minke whale, which was taken under the research whaling program. In 2020, the quota remains unchanged, making it difficult to significantly increase the whale meat supply.
Japan will maintain an annual budget of ¥5.1 billion to help get commercial whaling back on its feet. But a Fisheries Agency executive said, “We have no intention of dragging on the status quo forever.”
Tokyo-based Kyodo Senpaku Co., the only company taking part in offshore whaling operations, takes in about ¥1.5 billion per year from whaling.
“Making a profit with this quota is tough,” said the company’s president, Eiji Mori. Cornered financially, he said he is hoping that in the future the quota will increase, along with the number of whale species that can be harvested.
Yet, even though the quotas are raised, whaling could inevitably decline without an increase in demand.
“If the new generation doesn’t eat whale’s meat, it becomes a question of who will.”