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Whale meat prices slashed in Japan

whale meat party
People snap up slices of whale sashimi at a whale-meat party in Tokyo, but the recession is hitting fans in their pockets  

By Alex Frew McMillan
CNN Hong Kong

TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Japan's month-long sale of whale meat started Wednesday at local wholesale markets.

The Institute of Cetacean Research, Japan's whale-research group, is selling the proceeds of last year's minke-whale hunts.

The meat is a delicacy in Japan. But in a nod to the faltering economy, the group is slashing the price.

Sashimi grade red flesh costs 2,600 yen ($22) per kilogram, for bulk buyers. That's 12.8 percent less than last year.

"It's not very easy to buy whale meat because all kinds of prices are going down at the present time," Takumi Ikeishima, head of general affairs, told CNN.

"All kinds of fish prices are going down due to deflation," he explained.

Available through August

The meat is on sale through central markets from July 31 through August 31. Supplies will be scarce, with 1,929 metric tons on offer.

Whale meat is sought-after in Japan, particularly among older Japanese people and the post-War generation.

A poster extolled "Utilization of every part without waste," as Japan hosted the International Whaling Commission this year  

It was often served for lunch in public schools because it was cheaper than beef.

At the height of commercial hunting, Japan sent six whaling fleets a year to the Antarctic. They harvested 220,000 tons of minke meat each season, 100 times the amount sold now.

A mounting outcry curtailed the hunts in the early 1980s. Now some Japanese cooks use a small amount of whale as a nod to their heritage.

Whale meat is mostly used for supper, often in a stew or soup. Aficionados say it goes with sake or beer and is good for a family gathering.

Those who oppose whale hunting say the institute sells the meat only to perpetuate hunting.

A survey by Japan's Fisheries Agency last December showed that 87 percent of respondents had eaten whale meat.

Data required for 'proper management'

The Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research insists that Japan's whalers are complying with a 1986 worldwide ban on commercial whale hunting.

"For the past 15 years, Japan has been conducting research in the Antarctic to obtain data required for proper management of minke whale stocks," the body said in declaring Wednesday's meat sale.

International whaling rules stipulate research by-products, including whale meat, should be used where possible.

Critics insist the "research" is a front for Japan's whaling ships to engage in wholesale harvesting of the massive mammals.

"It's just a commercial sale. It's called scientific research. But it's going to different supermarkets throughout Japan," Greenpeace campaigner Frode Pleym told CNN.

The environmental group dispatched its Arctic Sunrise ship to the Antarctic late last year to disrupt the minke harvest.

The institute responded that the criticism "is based on emotional reasons."

The International Whaling Commission voted against increasing Japan's whale quota in May (full story).

Proceeds for next year's research

The institute will raise around 3.8 billion yen ($32 million) with this year's sale. The proceeds will fund next year's research.

But the recession may crimp the institute's efforts. Customers have been shifting to cheaper fish and forsaking luxury items like whale.

"Last year we were facing financial problems due to the recession and so on, so we had some stocks we could not sell," Ikeishima said. "Finally we sold it, but it was not smooth."

Opponents say those problems prove whale meat is not as popular as it used to be.

"They are distributing hundreds of tons of whale meat and blubber from research to local governments and schools, to ensure that Japanese whaling traditions get passed to future generations," Pleym, the Greenpeace campaigner, said.

Pleym admitted making use of dead whales is a tricky issue. He also conceded the meat is part of Japan's heritage.

"We do not think that it should be thrown away," he said. "But it should not be used in terms of feeding the market."

The institute studies marine ecosystems and fish stocks. It says minke-whale numbers are strong and not threatened by whaling.

Japanese whalers are also hunting wei whales in the western north Pacific, to gather data on their diet and on the ecosystem.


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