Japan Awash in a Tsunami of Complexity

The 2011 meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in St. Helier, Jersey (UK) promises to be a compelling, lively event, with unexpected developments in Japan, Iceland, and Norway unfolding in ways that will likely shape the direction of the withering, legally-contested commercial whaling industry in the near future. The following provides an overview of current industry activities in Japan, Iceland, and Norway, and what we may expect at IWC this year from the three rogue nations that continue to conduct commercial whaling in defiance of the international moratorium on whaling. This is a four-part series, which each segment devoted to a particular country or issue.

Japan Awash in a Tsunami of Complexity

There has been plenty of speculation about Japan’s whaling agenda in the wake of the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and partial meltdown of the Fukushimka daiichi nuclear power plant. In the days immediately following April 11th, it became clear that a portion of the whaling fleet were damaged, though it was not known to what extent. We later learned that none of thirteen warehouses storing thousands of tons of whale meat were reported to have been damaged. Some predicted that, following the indefinite suspension of whaling operations in the Southern Ocean, the recent tsunami signaled the death knoll for whaling in Japan. But the Japanese culture is known for its resourcefulness and resiliency and, sure enough, it has already begun piecing its fractured whaling operations together.

Expanded Coastal Whaling Program

But let’s go back even before the tsunami… the announcement that Japan would indefinitely suspend its whaling operations in the Southern Ocean came as no surprise to those monitoring the economics of whaling in Japan. With a price tag of $50M annually, it no longer made sense to spend more to go farther to catch fewer whales, and continual conflagrations with Sea Shepherd certainly became a liability. Considering these factors, the conservation community expected Japan to advocate for an expanded coastal whaling program at this year’s IWC, thereby circumventing both issues by 1) keeping operational costs relatively low, and; 2) avoiding conflicts with environmental groups by remaining in Japan’s jurisdictional waters. In addition, the U.S. is already developing its strategy for renewing its bowhead quota, which is scheduled for renewal in 2012. The U.S. vigorously defends its bowhead quota, and historically, Japan has been extremely savvy in threatening to block the bowhead quota and using its position as leverage in achieving its own goals at IWC, in typical quid pro quo fashion. The strategic confluence of the U.S. bowhead quota, its departure from the Southern Ocean, and the impacts of the tsunami on coastal (whaling) communities, will most assuredly result in a request from Japan for an expanded coastal whaling program.

Small Cetacean Drive Hunts

In Taiji (Wayakama Prefecture), pilot whale (‘gondo’) drive hunts began in May, a month earlier than usual. Local fisherman received permission from government officials to begin the hunt in May this year, due to the tsunami’s impact on the overall season. Many were shocked and outraged at the news that the now-infamous cove and small cetacean drive hunts were being carried out so soon after the tsunami, which devastated the town of Taiji. Advocates from Ric O’Barry’s group, Save Japan Dolphins, are following trucks to market to test the freshly-killed pilot whale meat for radiation levels in light of reports of leaked radiation directly into the Pacific at the site of the Fukushimka daiichi nuclear power plant.

Somewhat misleading media reports stated that for the first time since 1988, fishermen’s unions stated that they would not engage in hunting for small whale species (minke) in coastal waters off Taiji, as a result of damage to coastal whaling vessels. However, coastal whaling operations targeting minkes (Japan has a spring quota of 60 minke whales) merely relocated to an area off of Kushiro, Hokkaido. Following the end of this operation in June, the coastal whaling vessel moves to Hakodate (Chiba Prefecture) to hunt for beaked whales until august. The vessel will then return to Kushiro to embark on fall (minke whale) hunts. The coastal whaling season lasts until the end of September, so it remains a possibility that whaling operations will continue off the coast of Taiji, pending the availability of a vessel. Until that becomes a reality, Taiji fisherman will continue to assist nearby whaling towns “in need”.

Japan’s Ability to ‘Afford’ IWC Allies

Perhaps one of the more interesting developments in light of Japan’s situation will be whether it will be in a financial position to extend ‘aid’ and perks associated with alleged vote-buying that it has traditionally extended to its IWC allies – most notably, island nations in the South Pacific and the Caribbean. We will continue to keep our members posted of all activities that influence voting dynamics and issues of integrity and alleged ‘vote buying’ by the Japanese Government.

While we certainly empathize with Japanese citizens whose lives have been impacted by this terrible series of disasters, we must insist that strong measures continue to be adopted that fortify whale conservation and protection, that all aspects of the moratorium on whaling be upheld, and that sympathetic political posturing do not lead to concessions in Japan’s disputed whaling industry – including a coastal whaling program, increased quotas, or relaxed policies related to trade in whale products.

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4 Comments on “Japan Awash in a Tsunami of Complexity”


  1. Cheryl, how many bowhead whales are Alaskans permitted to kill? And, is there any evidence that they truly need this meat to survive? Or it is simply “cultural tradition” that allows them to be exempt from whaling? If it’s cultural tradition, gosh, how can we as Americans stand up against other countries doing the same? I know this is a complex and sensitive issue, and would really appreciate your thoughts.


  2. Hi Teresa – great questions! For 2011, the US quota for members of the Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) is 75 bowhead whales struck; that quota is determined by members of the Scientific Committee of the IWC. The bowhead hunt is considered “Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW)”, and the quota is determined in part by a demonstrated “needs assessment”, most recent population estimate, projected impacts, etc. The bowhead AWS quota is guaranteed to Alaskan Indigenous Communities by the US Government, and the bowhead quota is very vigorously defended by the US Government at IWC; nobody expects aboriginal whaling to be phased out, given the (relatively) low quota and impact on populations. I know…it’s upsetting that it happens at all, but in the grand scheme of “fighting one’s battles” – this guaranteed quota isn’t going away in the foreseeable future. To my knowledge, no highly-credible whale conservation organization is currently sinking resources into ending ASW hunts – it would be a dead-end of resources. Thanks for the awesome question!


  3. Thank you Cheryl. This is sort of what I thought, but was not sure. It is nice to have the clarification. And I certainly understand that in the big picture of saving whales this would not be a battle to choose. It is still so very sad, especially if they don’t actually need the meat to survive or if they use modern killing weapons vs. the “traditional” ones. Thank you for responding to this.

  4. H.J. Marx Says:

    “the tsunami, which devastated the town of Taiji.”

    “to Hakodate (Chiba Prefecture)”

    Taiji recieved little, if any, damage from the tsunami.

    Hakodate is in Hokkaido prefecture, not Chiba.


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