Japan goes whaling for first time in 30 years

Big fish: Whale was the biggest source of meat in Japan in the 1940s to 1960s.

Should Japan be condemned for hunting whales? Yesterday, eight ships set sail for Japan’s first commercial whale hunts since 1986. But some say this is the beginning of the end.

You can eat it raw, deep-fried, or sandwiched between buns in a “whale burger”.

Whale meat has been part of the Japanese diet for thousands of years. But, for the last three decades, hunting has happened under the guise of “scientific research”.

Not any more. Yesterday, five whaling ships left the northern town of Kushiro for the first commercial hunt since 1986. Three more ships left Shimonoseki in the south west. The head of Japan’s fishing ministry said it made him “happy from the bottom of [his] heart”.

Whales have been hunted for thousands of years — for their meat, bones, oil and more. Many species were driven to the brink of extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, as hunting got more efficient. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986 in order to let the populations recover.

Most whaling countries agreed, believing that the ban would be temporary. Japan has since tried and failed to get it lifted several times. Last year, after another unsuccessful attempt, it officially left the IWC. That decision came into effect on 1 July, meaning it can now legally hunt whales in its own waters.

In total, whalers will be allowed to kill 227 whales in the months up until December: 52 minke, 150 Bryde’s and 25 sei whales. Japan insists that these are sustainable numbers with minimal environmental impact, although campaigners disagree.

Despite the international row over whaling, the meat is not particularly popular in Japan. While it has always been part of the culture of traditional whaling communities, it was not eaten across the entire country until after World War Two.

Consumption peaked in the 1960s, when Japan ate 200,000 tons of whale a year. Now, that has fallen to around 5,000 tons despite heavy government subsidies which make it cheaper to buy than tuna.

“[Japanese people] have lost their yen for whale meat, even as their government has spent billions in taxpayer yen trying to prop up this economic loser,” said Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling.”

Go fish?

Should Japan be condemned for whaling? Environmental campaigners have three arguments. Firstly, that the IWC’s ban has saved whales from extinction. Also, whaling leads to particularly cruel deaths. Finally, it is unnecessary — huge amounts of unwanted whale meat end up in pet food. It is time to let this industry die.

But isn’t this criticism a bit hypocritical? If done sustainably, why is killing whales worse than killing any other animal? Some in Japan even argue that whale meat has a lower carbon footprint than pork or beef. People should be free to eat it if they want to.

You Decide

  1. Should whaling be banned?
  2. Is eating whale worse than eating any other kind of meat? If so, why?

Activities

  1. Produce a poster campaigning for or against whaling in Japan.
  2. Write a fact file about another country which hunts whales today, or has done so in the past.

Some People Say...

“Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye?”

Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Although commercial whaling was banned in 1986, Japan has been hunting between 200-1,200 whales a year, using a loophole for scientific research. Much of this ends up being sold for meat. Japan has spent around $400 million subsidising the whale industry to keep meat prices low. Despite this, it is not a popular choice of food — particularly among young people.
What do we not know?
What will happen to the industry now that Japan has resumed commercial hunts. Some argue that it will allow the Japanese government to stop paying subsidies, and the industry will die out naturally with national pride intact. However, those who work in the whaling industry hope it will become popular again as more people learn how to eat it.

Word Watch

International Whaling Commission
A group of 88 governments protecting whales around the world. It was first set up in 1946 to regulate the whaling industry and prevent overfishing. Now, it focuses on conservation and research.
Minke
Pronounced “minki”, these whales can grow to around 8m long. They are not currently endangered.
Bryde’s
Pronounced “broodus”, these whales grow to around 13m long and have no teeth. It is thought that they include several different species. They are not listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Sei
Pronounced “see”, these whales can grow to around 18m long. They are listed as endangered by the IUCN.
200,000 tons
According to Japanese government statistics.
Yen
A desire or urge for something. Also the name of Japan’s currency.
Cruel
Whales are killed using harpoons (long spear-like weapons). While they used to be hand-held, today these are fired with harpoon guns attached to the side of a ship. Although Japan says that the whales are killed instantly, the Environmental Investigation Agency says it can take between two to five minutes.