Days of debate over the future of whaling will come to a head Friday when members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) vote on a Japanese proposal which could lead to the resumption of commercial whaling.
The Japanese delegation at the IWC’s annual symposium in Brazil is seeking several changes to the governing body’s procedures and stated mission to, it says, break the deadlock over opposing philosophies of whaling.
A vote tabled Friday would simplify IWC voting rules, reorient the IWC’s mission away from conservation and towards “resource management,” and look to establish a committee to examine the feasibility of restarting commercial whaling.
Any of these measures would make it easier for the Japanese and their pro-whaling allies to push for the resumption of commercial whaling.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday that the proposals will “benefit all (IWC) members including anti-whaling countries.”
Suga added that hoped the IWC would resume its role as a “resource control organization” rather than focusing on conservation.
Japan’s attempt to lift a moratorium on commercial whaling, which has stood since 1982, is dominating the discussion at the annual IWC meeting on Brazil’s South Atlantic coast.
There are suggestions the country will leave the international body if the proposal is turned down.
While the outcome of the vote is by no means decided, proponents of commercial whaling gained some confidence from a vote Tuesday which saw Japan and its allies strike down a proposal to create a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic.
The dismissed proposal said the sanctuary would provide a safe haven for whales, increasing their numbers and preventing the “severe exploitation” of their population by foreign whaling fleets.
Demand for change
While the Japanese political class eagerly seeks a restart to commercial whaling, much of the public doesn’t seem to have strong opinions on the issue itself.
“Actually many (regular) people don’t have any interest in whales or whaling now in Japan,” Nanami Kurasawa of the Iruka and Kujira (dolphin and whale) Action Network (IKAN) told CNN.
Kurasawa said that eating whale is also becoming “less and less popular.”
According to Aimee Leslie, global lead for cetaceans and marine turtles for WWF, the number of people in Japan who regularly eat whale meat is very small.
In 2013, nine of 10 Japanese said they hadn’t bought whale meat in the past year, leading to thousands of tons of the meat being stockpiled, according to a survey commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
In another survey of Japanese people released in 2014, only 4% of respondents said they ate whale meat occasionally, compared to 37% who said they didn’t eat it at all.
Leslie told CNN that the diminishing market for whale meat in Japan means that it is only government subsidies that keep the industry alive.
Japan already hunts whales each year despite the worldwide moratorium, utilizing a loophole in the law that allows for killing the mammals for scientific research.
For years the research loophole was the government’s last-ditch effort to keep the moribund whaling industry alive, but supporters got a boost in 2017 when the Abe administration enshrined continued research whaling, with a view to reviving commercial whaling, into law.
The current research program – NEWREP-A – is scheduled to last until the 2026-27 hunting season.
Under the program, a maximum quota of 333 minke whales are marked for slaughter each year, according to an information sheet from Japan’s Fisheries Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs – almost 4,000 whales over the duration of the program.
In justifying the slaughter, the authors of the sheet maintain there are “no other means than lethal methods, at this stage” to obtain age data on the minke population. It claims having accurate data of this kind is necessary for estimating the age-at-sexual-maturity (ASM) of the whales, which gives a better read on the health of whale populations.
Part of Japanese culture
Supporters of eating whale meat say that it is an important part of Japanese heritage, and accuse western critics of cultural imperialism.
Shinrato Sato, 47, the second-generation owner of a Japanese casual izakaya restaurant in the Tokyo district of Shinjuku, which features cuisine from the Sanriku coastline of the Tohoku region said that Japan’s cultural connection with whaling goes back 4,000 years.
He considers eating the giant mammals to be Japan’s “precious culinary culture.” He said whale remains a popular choice on his menu at his restaurant. “The older generation find it melancholic and begin to talk about their childhood school lunches while younger people are reminded that the whale meat is OK to eat,” said Sato.
“We’re waiting for the day that we can catch whales without shame. If the whaling resumes and these products come to the supermarket, the price will fall and people might feel little more familiar with eating whales,” he added
Sato said that Japanese whalers “will and should” control resources sustainably, and would “not overfish.”
But not everyone agrees. Willie Mackenzie, oceans campaigner at Greenpace, told CNN that many countries have similar histories, but that the practice has “been left there (in the past) for the most part.”
According to Mackenzie there are other reasons that the Japanese want to regain the right to hunt whales.
“There are different considerations too on the impact of regulating any one thing – it could lead to other things, like fishing, being regulated.”