The Whale Killers Japan Fights International Opinion to Continue Hunting Cetaceans

From Jonah to Moby Dick, whales have long been one of our great planetary symbols. They are not only majestic but clearly intelligent. Whale watching has become a billion-dollar industry. And, since human hunters nearly drove many whale species into extinction for their lubricant-rich oil, they have been largely protected in recent years. A few species, notably the California gray whales, have made strong comebacks. Others, such as Atlantic right whales, remain at critically endangered population levels as low as a few hundred animals. Indeed, seven of the 13 great whale species are considered in potential jeopardy.

But in case you thought conservationists have permanently saved the whales from the harpoon gun, you need only take an early morning walk through the acres of stalls inside Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market (the world’s largest) to the sales booth of the Kyodo Senpaku Whaling Company.

“This is all minke whale here,” says Ryusuki Mori, the firm’s assistant manager. On the other side of a counter, a company worker is slicing up chunks of red whale meat. “We handle about 50 tons a year at this market,” Mori continues, “in the spring from the North Pacific and in summer from the Antarctic.”

The 54th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the whales” own “United Nations” of 45 member countries, was held in Japan. Since the IWC voted in 1982 to enact a global moratorium on sale of whale products, Japan has methodically undermined the ban by continuing to kill whales under the guise of “scientific research”—and selling the meat nationwide. The government now subsidizes the industry, with $61 million last year.

The conference was held 500 miles from Tokyo, in the old southern port city of Shimonoseki. The location was clearly symbolic. Shimonoseki remains home base for two big ships that last year brought in nearly 600 whales. A local lunch counter was busy promoting such take-out as fried whale cutlet sandwiches, whale burgers, even whale hot dogs.

As hundreds of delegates, scientists, media and watchdog organizations arrived, they met men in matching blue and green uniforms, blaring pro-whaling and anti-American slogans through loudspeakers. Members of Greenpeace also greeted arriving delegates with a demonstration, holding up images of Masayuki Komatsu, a senior official with Japan’s powerful Fisheries Agency who has described minke whales as “cockroaches of the sea.” Komatsu has become a hero to many Japanese watching the whaling scenario unfold on the nightly TV news.

Japan’s supporters included a voting bloc of six Caribbean island nations, the Pacific island of Palau, Guinea and Morocco in Africa, and Mongolia. Most of these were recent recipients of “Grant Aid for Fisheries” from Komatsu’s agency, which totaled around $77 million in 2001. “It’s not just aid, but under-the-table payments,” says Richard Mott of the World Wildlife Fund. “I saw envelopes of cash at [the IWC meeting in] Grenada in 1999.”

Japan wanted a commercial quota of minke whales for four of its coastal communities, which would mean an end to the 15-year moratorium. When it couldn’t muster the requisite three-quarter majority, Japan blocked consensus that customarily provides a quota of bowhead whales that are hunted strictly for subsistence purposes by native peoples in the Alaskan and Russian Arctic.

U.S. commissioner Rolland Schmitten says Japan’s intransigent effort to revive commercial whaling is not motivated by money. “The amount of GNP that whaling represents in Japan is insignificant,” he says. “But whaling is being sold as a nationalistic right, with western countries somehow threatening their culture.” One thing is certain: Dining on whale meat is not something of interest to Japan’s younger generation. A poll released last year by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper indicates that few Japanese in their 20s have even tasted whale; nearly 60 percent of those polled oppose any resumption of commercial whaling.

Japan’s whaling “godfather,” Seiji Ohsumi, directs the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), established when the whaling moratorium took effect in 1987. “By analyzing the stomach contents of the whales,” Ohsumi argues, “we have been finding that whales annually consume between 300 million and 500 million tons of fish resources. By comparison, all the fishing boats in the world only harvest about 100 million tons of fish a year. It is wrong to enforce limits on fishing, while leaving whales free to multiply.”

The logic of this argument seemed, well, inscrutable at best. Fish stocks were far healthier back in the days when there were thousands more whales in the oceans. Marine scientists outside Japan are near unanimous in finding this a specious argument. In fact, the IWC’s Scientific Committee notes “several ecological pathways through which whales could benefit fisheries.” These include their role in feeding on zooplankton, thus allowing higher densities of the phytoplankton that are critical for feeding larval fish. “Japan has never been an honest broker in fisheries management debates,” says Carl Safina of the Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program, “and they are at their most absurd and unethical with their fictions about whales and fish.”

Organized whaling in Japan began in a lovely coastal village called Taiji in 1606. And that’s where, every autumn, some of the local fishermen herd schools of pilot whales onto the beach and beat them to death with clubs. These smaller marine mammals aren’t covered under the IWC moratorium and the people of Taiji consume the meat, despite studies indicating it may contain levels of mercury beyond acceptable health standards. In Taiji, whales are sculpted in fountains and carved out of mown grass. Their painted images stare down at you from bus stops and bridges, up at you from manhole covers. A large Whaling Museum sells a whale-shaped cake and postcards that read “Wink and Kiss dolphin.”

But there is no “subsistence” comparison between Taiji and the Arctic villages, as Komatsu wanted the world to believe. In Taiji, the meat from a pilot whale sells for the yen equivalent of $12,000. And the average yearly income for a whaler is about $75,000.

A month after the IWC meeting concluded, Japan finally gave in on the subsistence question, after diplomatic pressure was applied by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. “Japan’s basic policy is not to block the whaling quota of these Eskimo people,” said Tsutomu Takebe, the Agriculture Minister who ultimately oversees Japanese fisheries. The concession opened the door for a special session of the IWC, to resolve the Alaskan and Russian subsistence quota. But at the same news conference, Takebe defended his country’s “scientific” whaling program, reiterating the theory that whales consume three to five times as many fish as humans and so are taking food from the mouths of millions. The gap between the Japanese and western view on whales is not likely to be bridged anytime soon.