The battle over blubber

Israeli delegation helped defeat resolution that would have allowed Japan to commercially hunt 150 minke whales a year.

bloody whale 88 (photo credit: )
bloody whale 88
(photo credit: )
Yoshinori Shoji strides up the slope, gesturing with his hand to indicate the length of the whale when laid out on the wooden floor of the roofless slaughterhouse. Stamping on the worn decking, the tall 45-year-old explains how his workers use long, razor-sharp machetes to cut through the thick blubber and chainsaws for the whale's bones. Besides organizing trips for local schoolchildren to watch the four hours of butchering followed by a whale-meat tasting, Shoji puts up a notice of the gutting sessions during the hunting season on his Web site. Typically, around 50 curious onlookers make their way to the small fishing town of Wadaura, more than two hours east of Tokyo by train. Shoji points down the incline to a narrow concrete trench a short distance from the lapping Pacific Ocean. The gutter channels the blood from the carcass into a small open tank nearby, where it waits for collection to be turned into fertilizer. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Shoji recalls how his father used to do the job himself at home. The stench of blood would cling to Shoji's clothes and make him the object of schoolyard teasing. Shoji is president of Gaibo Hogei, a whaling company started by his grandfather in 1949. With two boats and 30 staff, the company catches whales and processes the meat as part of Japan's coastal whaling operations. Shoji's father first grew concerned about the future of his business after the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment recommended a 10-year moratorium on commercial whaling. Since then, the whaling industry has become the subject of much fierce debate between supporters of whaling and conservationists. Despite numerous attacks by governments and environmental groups on what they deem an unnecessary practice, Shoji remains defiant. "I cannot find any reason why we should stop whaling," he says, sitting back in his office. "Why is the whale so special to some people? It's a fishery. What is the difference between a sardine and a whale?" Ever since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) introduced a ban on the commercial hunting of whales in 1986, companies like Shoji's have seen a dramatic downturn in business. As part of the moratorium's aim to allow whale stocks to recover after years of decimation, Japanese coastal whalers are prohibited from killing minke whales, once a valuable resource. Shoji now only catches minke as part of government-backed research. "All of a sudden [Japanese whalers] were told that whaling was cruel and something to be ashamed of," says Joji Morishita of Japan's Fisheries Agency. "From their point of view, whaling is something that shapes the very basis of their community, their identity and history, and they need a good reason to [stop]." Eight coastal whaling firms in Japan now catch Beard's beaked and pilot whales - species not subject to the ban. While the moratorium was initially conceived as a temporary measure with a view to resuming commercial whaling once whale populations had sufficiently increased, many of those signatory countries now disagree with a return to commercial hunting. Over the last 20 years, two opposing camps have become ensconced in the IWC: those in favor of regulated whaling and those firmly against. The issue appears at a deadlock with little sign that either side is willing to compromise. ISRAEL ENTERED the fray last summer when it joined the ranks of anti-whaling nations at the request of the US, which was concerned that the pro-whaling bloc was about to wrest control of the IWC at its conference in St. Kitts and Nevis. American fears were partly proved correct when pro-whaling nations, by one vote, managed to get a resolution passed in support of overturning the 20-year-old ban. Despite apocalyptic declarations by some media, the resolution was little more than symbolic since a three-quarters majority is required to rescind the ban. While New Zealand's environment minister, Chris Clark, called the vote "the most serious defeat the conservation cause has ever suffered at the IWC," Dan Goodman, a former adviser in Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans and now a consultant to the Japanese government, says the win was "a clear demonstration that anti-whaling is not the so-called 'world opinion.'" In other votes, however, Israel's presence was crucial to the conservationist cause. The Israeli delegation helped defeat a resolution that would have allowed Japan to commercially hunt 150 minke whales a year in the North Pacific. Israeli officials were also instrumental in halting another Japanese motion to stop the issue of dolphins and porpoises being discussed by the scientific committee. (The Japanese fishing village of Taiji is well known for its annual dolphin cull.) "Whaling is illegal in Israel, and when we go to the international forum, we are making those opinions known," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "That's why on the whaling issue we lined up with those who believe whales should be protected." The IWC was set up under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in 1946 to oversee commercial whaling and prevent the kind of rampant exploitation that had taken place before World War II. National self-interest and short-term profits, however, once again drove some whale stocks to the point of collapse in the 1960s and '70s. While some big whaling nations, like Norway and Britain, became less reliant on whale oil and started to sell off their fleets, Japan began to expand its commercial whaling operations. Japan at first opposed the moratorium when it was passed in 1982, but later retracted its objection following international pressure. Japan finally stopped its operations in early 1987. In the fall of the same year, the Japanese whaling fleet began its controversial scientific research in the Southern Ocean, which it continues today under a clause in the 1946 convention. (Regulated whaling by aboriginal groups is also permitted by the IWC.) The Japanese fleet - currently at sea in the frigid waters of the Antarctic - plans on killing 850 minke and 10 fin whales this season. In total, Japanese researchers from the Institute of Cetacean Research, which receives around $10 million in annual government subsidies, hope to catch more than 1,200 whales, including sperm, Bryde's and sei. The number of whales caught in the Southern Ocean and North Pacific has more than doubled since 2000. Critics say that these spiraling numbers are proof that the research is nothing more than a cover for commercial whaling. "We already have 20 years of research in the Southern Ocean," says Junichi Sato of Greenpeace Japan. "If you're researching wild animals, you have to reduce the samples every year as you get more data. That's how we normally do research on land. You cannot increase the amount you kill each year." But the Japanese government contends that its activities are helping scientists understand a lot more about whale populations and their feeding habits in the Antarctic. Goodman, who, besides advising the Japanese government, is a councilor at the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo, argues that Japan's research program is the only one to provide data essential for the management of Antarctic whale stocks. "You simply can't manage biological resources properly without research," he says. "Both the quality and quantity of data from Japan's research programs have been commended by the [IWC] scientific committee." TOSHIO KASUYA is an expert on small cetaceans. He worked for the Fisheries Agency for almost 15 years, attending many IWC meetings as a government delegate, and now sits on the IWC scientific committee. Although he acknowledges that the Japanese research has allowed scientists a clearer understanding of whale population structure in the Antarctic, he says other elements are questionable. Kasuya says that Japan changed the objective of its first-phase research after a few years because it was proving too difficult. The aim of the second phase, he adds, is ambiguous. "Currently, the objective of this hunting is to understand the ecosystem of the Antarctic," he says. "I think they may be able to detect some scientific information about the ecosystem, but I doubt that they can achieve what they said they would do." He predicts that the Japanese government, at the conclusion of this second phase of research, will face another barrage of criticism for not producing enough credible data to justify the number of dead whales. With Japan targeting 50 humpback whales - a species classified as "vulnerable" by the World Conservation Union - next season in the Antarctic, Doug Thompson, an American marine naturalist, believes the research to date "has come up with nothing of scientific importance that one couldn't learn in basic marine biology in any high school." One of the many sticking points of the whaling issue surrounds population sizes. Anti-whaling groups argue that since there is no agreement on how many minke whales, for example, there are in the Antarctic, it is too risky to allow any level of harvesting. Due to the difficulty in counting whales, abundance estimates remain fodder for heated arguments at IWC meetings. The Japanese government has for a long time worked from a figure of 760,000 for minke whales in the Antarctic - a number agreed upon by the scientific committee in the early 1990s. That calculation, however, has since been disregarded. "The scientific committee has already agreed that there is no such number anymore," Kasuya says. "The number of minke whales could have been this number in the past, or the number could have been wrong - we don't know." So imprecise is the science, he says, that an abundance estimate of a particular type of whale can have a margin of error of up to 50 percent. That means that there could be as many as double the number or as few as half the number of whales as the estimate. It's this "uncertainty," Japan argues, that forms the basis for the anti-whaling fraternity's opposition to a resumption of commercial whaling. But it's precisely because there are no hard estimates for some species, Japanese officials say, that they are conducting their research. For some other species, the IWC's scientific committee agrees that stocks are recovering well. "The ICRW is about managing whaling on a sustainable basis," Goodman says. "It is not about protecting all whales irrespective of their abundance." The Japanese government believes the IWC has lost sight of its original purpose and has called for its "normalization." The Fisheries Agency's Morishita says that the annual IWC meeting should be a civilized discussion about science-based conservation and whale stocks management, not an arena for emotional appeals and political blustering. "Every year we just come to this organization and do the same discussion, knowing that any kind of vote will end up as nothing," he says. "And we just care about our simple majority resolution, which might be one vote more this year and one vote more next year for the other side. We are just wasting money and time year after year." HOWEVER, JAPAN itself has been accused of political maneuvering and histrionics. At last year's meeting in St. Kitts, for example, Japanese officials attacked anti-whaling nations for their "cultural imperialism." More seriously, opponents say that Japan "bought" last summer's simple majority resolution win through aid to some of the smaller member countries. Morishita strongly denies any wrongdoing, stating that the government is "prohibited to tie conditions to aid." But a report by the non-profit organization Third Millennium Foundation released last year claims that the Japanese government has been extending fisheries grants worth millions of dollars to countries in return for their support in IWC votes. The 82-page report alleges that Japan has recruited around 20 countries to the IWC, including Antigua and Barbuda, the Solomon Islands and Gabon. Morishita says that the surge in support for Japan's position is down to countries' agreeing with the government's argument for a lifting of the ban on commercial whaling. "We send missions to these countries and what we talk about are the implications of the whaling issue to the issue of fisheries and the issue of utilization of other natural resources and animals," he says. "And I am always surprised to learn that they are quick to understand the larger implication of this issue." The former prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Lester Bird, was a little more blunt about his government's reasoning when interviewed in 2001: "Quite frankly, I make no bones about it... if we are able to support the Japanese, and the quid pro quo is that they are going to give us some assistance, I am not going to be a hypocrite; that is part of why we do so." The anti-whaling nations have become as equally ruthless in this game of IWC power politics. Britain, determined to reverse last year's vote at the next IWC meeting in Alaska in May, recently launched a campaign to recruit countries to the anti-whaling camp. Slovenia and Croatia are the newest members. In response, Japan wrapped up an unofficial IWC conference in Tokyo last week that focused on ways to revive the IWC's role as a "resource control body." When Japan asserts that the IWC needs overhauling, it cites the way in which the organization has stalled in implementing systems for managing sustainable whaling. The revised management procedure, which was adopted by the IWC in 1994 but is yet to be fully introduced, was created to set limits on the number of whales that could be commercially hunted. Meanwhile, discussions on another system, the revised management scheme, are at an impasse. Goodman says that carefully monitored catch quotas are the way in which all other fisheries are managed and should be applied to whales. "The solution to the stalemate at the IWC is for the anti-whaling members to allow for a limited commercial hunt controlled by international regulations. Otherwise whaling will continue to be regulated by individual nations outside the IWC as it is now," he says. Kasuya, though, is skeptical of any kind of return to commercial whaling after seeing what he calls the "dirty side" of the industry. "There's a common understanding of ours that Japanese coastal whalers took two or three times the number of sperm whales they actually reported," he says. "Up to March 1987, they manipulated the catches." GREENPEACE JAPAN'S Sato is equally doubtful that commercial whaling could be properly controlled. "If Taiwanese ships, with very cheap labor, turn to commercial whaling and bring whales to the Japanese market, then that is already out of control because they are not in the IWC," he says. Most recently, Iceland resumed commercial whaling, saying that the IWC's own figures show that minke and fin whales are abundant in the North Atlantic. Iceland, like Norway, is free of the IWC moratorium because it lodged an objection to it. Norway restarted commercial whaling in 1994. While Tokyo continues to fight for a chance to harvest more whales, opponents point out that there is no longer a demand for whale meat in Japan. With the Institute of Cetacean Research struggling to offload its catch each season, the government was forced to put together a committee to discuss how to market whale meat to a generation of Japanese that rarely sees it on the menu. Last year, Geishoku Labo, a private company based in Tokyo, was set up with a five-year plan to promote and sell whale meat. The president of the company, Hiroshi Nakada, says that since whale meat is high in protein but low in calories, it can be promoted as a healthy food. Sato, however, says that whale-meat consumption in Japan was on the wane before the moratorium and will never be revived. "Whale meat was a sign of poverty and starvation from the past," he says. "As soon as the economy boomed, Japanese chose to eat beef, chicken or other kinds of meat, so the market naturally declined." Market or no market, Shoji vehemently believes that Japanese should have the right to choose what they eat. "I don't like people who say to me, 'Do you need it?' I think they can give up eating chicken and eat something else. It's a very silly discussion," he says. For Morishita, the struggle is about something more. "Personally, I am not doing this because I like to eat whale meat," he says. "I think the way the whale issue is handled is quite wrong. That's a more important aspiration for me to expend my energy on this issue." Conservationist Thompson thinks the future lies in whale watching, not killing. The whale-watching industry, he notes, generated revenues of more than $2 billion worldwide last year, with a growing sector in Japan. "The business of killing whales is from another era. It reminds me of our ancestors owning slaves. It was a 'normal' practice 150 years ago. And now we recoil at the thought," he says. Shoji stands in his shop surrounded by everything from cans of whale meat to packets of whale jerky. A couple of harpoons hang on the wall along with a blown-up black-and-white photo of a harpooner at work. While Shoji sees no problem with whale watching, he says he has no intention of giving up on an industry more than 400 years old. "It's a fight, and I'll fight as long as I'm alive."