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JapanFocus
Whaling Is a White Elephant
[Opinion] Japanese whalers try to create rather than supply demand
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-01 11:22 (KST)   
Japan's decision to host a special IWC (International Whaling Commission) conference this February in order to "reassess" the population of whales has been met with outrage from activists and anti-whaling nations. Japan leads the pro-whaling block of nations from Africa, the Caribbean and Oceania and hopes with their assistance to lift the ban on commercialized whaling.

Right now the Japanese whaling fleet is playing a cat-and-mouse game in the southern Pacific Ocean with anti-whaling ships led by Greenpeace and the controversial Sea Shepherd Society. The Sea Shepherd Society has offered $25,000 for the location of the whaling fleet, which is believed to be using satellite technology to avoid them. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd are not expected to co-operate as Greenpeace has criticized the society for apparently going too far in their protest in the past, while Sea Shepherd accuses Greenpeace of showboating but doing little else to actually save the whales.

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Commercialized whaling has been internationally banned for over 20 years. Whales were near the brink of extinction when the ban was put in place. Iceland and Norway are the only nations that officially ignore the ban. Bowing to threats of economic sanctions from the United States, Japan reluctantly accepted the ban, but it continues to hunt whales for "scientific research." This "scientific research" nets about 800-1,000 whales every year. The main target of this research is the more numerous minke whale but other species have been hunted in smaller numbers such as the sperm, sei and Byrd's whales, and just recently, the fin whale. This year Japanese whalers plan to hunt at least 50 fin and humpback whales.

After the research is supposedly performed, the whales often end up in restaurants and supermarkets for the scientific perusal of the average consumer.

Like many island nations, Japan has a long history of whaling. They used everything of the whale, including the oil, meat and bone. Commercialized whaling in Japan didn't really develop until late due to its long period of isolation. It was only after World War II that whale meat became a major part of the Japanese diet due to overall food shortages following the war. Whale meat became a customary item in children's lunches. It should be pointed out that whale meat was not yet seen as a culinary delicacy but as a substitute source of protein. Basically, it was the poor man's steak not the rich man's pate.

The overall demand is not very high for whale meat in Japan or for whale byproducts. While some old-timers may wax nostalgically on their old school lunches, for others who were alive during that time, whale meat reminds them of poverty. The whalers are trying to create demand rather than supply a demand, as the tons of whale meat that has gone unsold over the past few years shows. Precious whale meat was also discovered in pet food in 2003 by the Environmental Investigation Agency -- no doubt a last ditch effort to unload unsold whale meat.

Japanese whaling vessel with a successfully caught "scientific research project."
©2007 D. Weber

A minke whale carcass is hauled away for scientific research.
©2007 D. Weber
Japanese whalers maintain that hunting whales has been a long cultural tradition. This is true but it has never been such an integral part of Japanese culture that its absence would cause irreparable damage, if the loss were even visible. In addition, the overall Japanese economy is hardly dependent on the industry.

Japanese whalers and other whaling nations contend that part of their purpose for whaling is to prevent whales from depleting fishing stocks. However, the species of whales mainly collected for Japanese scientific research, the minke of the North Pacific and Antarctic regions, show their consumption consists almost entirely of krill and not fish. Over fishing is the main culprit behind dwindling fish stocks not scapegoated whales. When Japanese whalers maintain this stance, it simply furthers the opinion that their research is useless, as they themselves pay no attention to the results. The concept of culling herds is not as applicable in this case as it would be with deer and caribou, which lack a natural predator and have more-limited space in which to live.

Japan, Iceland, Norway and other pro-whaling nations have a hard row to hoe against such widespread condemnation of whaling. History is the main stumbling block for these nations to overcome in order to get the ban lifted. One has only to look at the history of whaling and its effect on the overall species to see why measures are so strict. Mankind has constantly shown itself to be carelessly ruthless in the hunting to near-extinction of many species that were once numerous. A mere 20 years have passed since the international ban on whaling was put in place. Twenty years seems a relatively short time for a species that was hunted with fierce efficiency for the last two centuries alone to make such an amazing recovery that it now requires culling. Apparently, the significant numbers killed every year from hunting, scientific research and accidents are not enough.

A whaling ship from Ayukawa in Northern Japan.
©2007 D. Weber

A covered harpoon gun.
©2007 D. Weber
Whalers pushed the whales to the brink of extinction only a few decades ago. What makes pro-whaling nations think anyone will trust them to only hunt their quota and not do the same thing again that they did before? With factory ships that can process their catches in remote areas at sea far away from prying eyes, managing whaling is more difficult than land-based hunting. Pro-whaling nations barely hold back now under the ban. How will they behave without the ban with such an indignant attitude?

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Furthermore, the whaling industry today seems to resemble another rare species: a white elephant. Whaling is far more expensive to maintain compared to the profit attainable. Commercialized whaling for Japan would only result in more unsold whale meat and fat, whale-fed pets. Some whale meat has even been found to be contaminated by pollutants that are harmful to pregnant women and children. So much for children's lunchboxes. Minke whale meat, while leaner and without the contamination, is typically more expensive and less likely to be put in children's lunches on a large scale. The Japanese government has been wasting a significant amount of money on their white elephant industry through IWC political-wrangling and vainly trying to promote the image of whale meat to the general public, particularly to the youth who have no memories of leaner times when whale meat symbolized poverty. So far it has been money ill spent. The whale fleet rushes off to replenish a stock of whale meat that has succumbed to freezer-burn more than to voracious consumer demand.

There's more money to be had in whale watching these days than whale hunting. A clever whaler would trade in his harpoon gun for a telescope and take whale-photo hunters on a more profitable venture without shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars of sophisticated equipment just to avoid those pesky anti-whaling groups.

A factory ship now used as a museum but seemingly ready to sail if the ban is lifted.
©2007 D. Weber
©2007 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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