Japan has escaped major protests from the international community over commercial whaling it resumed a year ago for the first time in 31 years, while Japanese vessels have enjoyed good catches.
But consumption of whale meat, no longer often found on household dining tables, has not recovered smoothly.
Whalers aim to grow out of reliance on subsidies to achieve self-supporting management, but the outbreak of the new coronavirus is standing in their way.
In the wholesale market in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, minke whales caught in coastal waters off the Shimokita Peninsula were traded from mid-April to mid-June.
Unlike years of research whaling for scientific purposes, meat from whales carved soon after capture is fresh and perfect for sashimi. Red meat, a key part, initially sold for ¥3,000 to ¥4,000 per kilogram.
But in June, the price plunged to less than half the levels, according to a wholesaler. Increased supplies after bountiful catches, as well as restraints on dining out due to the spread of the new coronavirus, prompted the price falls.
As for frozen meat from mother ship whaling, which spend several months in waters far off from coasts, prices remain firm at supermarkets but are sluggish for restaurant use.
“Whale meat had just begun to be recognized as a new ingredient, but the coronavirus screwed it up,” said Hirohiko Shimizu, president of the Tokyo-based operator of kujiraniku.com, a website selling whale meat to restaurants.
Unless young people who have never eaten whale meat show interest, demand for whale meat is certain to dwindle.
Still, Eiji Mori, president of Kyodo Senpaku Co., a Tokyo-based company operating mother ship whaling, said, “Demand for red meat is growing, and such meat will run short in the near future.”
As red meat production has fallen 40 percent due to a cut in the catch quota after Japan’s shift from research whaling to commercial whaling, Mori calls for an expansion of the quota.
Increased production is essential for the stable management of mother ship whaling, which runs up heavy fuel and labor costs.
In fiscal 2020, the Japanese government set aside ¥5.1 billion to help finance the search for whaling grounds and the development of whaling technologies.
The aid is a provisional measure to help whalers to become financially independent, a senior official of the Fisheries Agency said. Whalers are stepping up cost reductions in order to turn profitable.
But an early expansion of the catch quota is not expected, while bright ideas cannot be readily found for boosting whale meat consumption.
With no end in sight for the coronavirus epidemic, “all we can do is to struggle to catch larger whales,” said a small-sized whaler from Chiba Prefecture.
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