Japan's decision day on whaling

Clash between whaling ship and protestors A resumption of the annual clashes in the Southern Ocean now looks inevitable

Would they commit, or wouldn't they?

The Japanese government has delayed its decision on the future of its Antarctic whaling programme longer than a commitment-phobic fiance.

But now Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano has formally announced that the fleet will sail again to the Southern Ocean later this year, and the hostilities from opponents such as Australia have started again.

There's a highly credible theory out there that significant portions of the government and the bureaucracy were keen to exit the annual hunt; but not at any price.

Negotiators from anti-whaling countries who were involved in the recent two-year attempt to build a compromise between Japan and its opponents certainly believed Japan was sincere, and was looking for an exit strategy.

That process finally foundered at last year's International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Morocco, with some anti-whaling countries demanding a complete and immediate halt to the annual Southern Ocean hunt, which Japan would not offer.

Then came the fiasco of a whaling season earlier this year, when a fleet pared down by budgetary constraints found itself for the first time out-gunned and out-paced by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and left the hunting grounds early with its tail between its legs.

Whalemeat sashimi Whalemeat is no longer the staple food in Japan that it was during World War II

After the Tokoku earthquake in March, a lot of soul searching went on in Tokyo's corridors of power on a huge number of issues.

The Fisheries Ministry took the radical step of setting up an expert committee, largely drawn from acadaemia, to discuss whether Antarctic whaling was still in the national interest and to make recommendations accordingly.

The panel was split, with a majority coming down in favour of continuing but a minority convinced that the Antarctic whaling era should finally close.

Then came the political considerations.

Whaling is important in a few key constituencies, both geographical and factional; and with the government in deep trouble over its handling of the post-earthquake, post-tsunami and post-Fukushima clean-up, party politics always appeared likely to decide the whaling future.

In reputational terms, the government was in a difficult position.

Pulling out would have been portrayed as surrender to Sea Shepherd. Continuing was to risk undermining some of the huge Western support and sympathy engendered by the earthquake and tsunami damage.

And a middle way - a cheaper, slimmed-down hunt with a small fleet and a small catch quota - was not an option, because Sea Shepherd made clear it would be back, and would presumably have claimed an easier victory.

The Legalities of Whaling

  • Objection - A country formally objects to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
  • Scientific - A nation issues unilateral "scientific permits"; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
  • Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat

So it really was an either/or moment.

The presumption is that officials will now despatch a beefed-up fleet later this year.

Mr Kano said the fleet's capacity to resist Sea Shepherd will be enhanced with "escort ships", although a Fisheries Agency official told me the composition of the fleet, the number of boats and the nature of these protection vessels were "confidential".

The other question mark concerns the factory ship Nisshin Maru.

From August this year, new International Maritime Organisation (IMO) rules mean ships cannot enter Antarctic waters carrying heavy fuel oil, which the Nisshin Maru has previously used.

Japanese officials have repeatedly stressed that they will adhere to the regulations. So presumably the ship will be adapted to run on diesel, which is considerably more expensive.

While Sea Shepherd plans a return to direct action, the Australian government is pressing ahead with its legal challenge through the International Court of Justice.

Anti-Sea Shepherd demonstration Some maintain that Sea Shepherd's campaign has built support for whaling in Japan

Its "Memorial" - the case for the prosecution, in other words - has been lodged, and Japanese officials are now compiling their response.

Whatever happens, the case is likely to drag on for years - possibly as few as three, but who knows?

Environment and animal welfare groups are also emerging to condemn the decision to continue the hunt.

But for some, this might also be an opportune time for reflection.

At the IWC meeting in Morocco, there was a real chance of emerging with an agreement under which Japan would have pledged to cut its Antarctic catch of minke whales to a few hundred per year now and 150 per year in 2015.

That would almost certainly have led to a complete cessation within a decade.

Under intense pressure from campaigners, some members of the anti-whaling bloc (in particular the Latin Americans) walked away.

In doing so, they gambled that a combination of public pressure, budgetary concerns and a declining whalemeat market would end the hunt.

The other side of the coin was that Japan might respond exactly as it has now done.

Rather than a few hundred minkes, the fleet is this year aiming for the full 850 specified in the Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Antarctic (Jarpa-2).

Talk of cessation is off the table; and on both side, the harpoons are being sharpened again.

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Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Although Japan claims it is performing research, precious few articles are published in peer-reviewed international journals in Biology (and those articles are not worth the ethical cost). Meat from the 'captured' whales does turn up in restaurants and stores, and suffice it to say this is unusual in scientific practice. By being dishonest about the 'research', Japan is acting dishonorably.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    My great uncle was their 'guest' too. His name was George, and he died working on the railways, malnurished and desperately ill. many Germans were Nazis too. There have been many bad episodes in human history, but it's still wrong to blame an entire people for the events of the past (or even the present).

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Why the Japanese government insists on whaling activity although facing lots of opponents? If the reasons are acceptable, then it should be ok to carried out "Moderate" whaling activity.

    If we can't stop them from doing something that most people think it was wrong, then just let the God to decide on everything as we try our best already!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Whales & Seals are top preditors. If mankind really wants to preserve the oceans, they should feed all along the food chain. By letting the top preditors multiply, there would be less for us to eat down the food chain.
    Think about these ratios: every pound of salmon protein is produced by feeding on 15 lbs of protein; every pound of sole fish protein is produced by just 1.1 lbs of plant protein.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @ 10.Wicked_Witch_of_the_West_Coast

    However much you or I find this practice objectionable, to then refuse help to people desperately in need is no way to win hearts. Illustrate by compassionate example how to behave. Remeber, not all people in a nation are the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    And this is why I refused to contribute to any Japanese quake/disaster appeals. They are barbarians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The Australian Navy should just board their ships, arrest the sailors and then scuttle the ship. No whaling fleet, no whaling. What´s Japan going to do ? Start a war ? I think not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I'm deeply sorry to see that the harpoons are out. Whaling is cruel. Whales form pods, have whale-relationships, mourn for their young, die without mothers, actually sing in the oceans - though what they have to sing about eludes me. Whales are intelligent, maybe more intelligent than the barbarians who hunt them. Perhaps one day, humans will find a way to live without slaughter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The fact is that Japan is not breaking any laws or agreements. the Sea Shepard is acting in a criminal way and if not for some sense of social popularity they would be the ones prosecuted. As pollution covers the oceans, great fisheries are depleted and localized fishing villages destroyed by commercial fleets the media concentrates on whales. Symbolic hypocrisy. Sushi?.. anyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I think you'll see by the majority of people who will be writing on here that the majority of people are against Whale hunting..I'm actually fed up of reading about all these meetings and conventions discussing whaling..please ban it all together already. No more Sony products for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    @kevinrvs1 and endangered by mans reckless abuse of the environment and its inhabitants. I would guess that bluemaumau spends to much time in disneyland. Caring baaad, killing good! doh!!

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    what utter nonsense by those fanatic animal rightists.
    there are enough whales to kill and eat a few and for others to watch them.
    are we going to have those freaks dictate to thre silent majority what to eat and drink ????
    whales only sing and act in human ways in disneyland. grow up and eat some whale !

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    SMH - Quote:

    "Are the Japanese people ready to take human lives in defence of this horrifically cruel and illegal slaughter of endangered and protected species of whales?

    "If so, my answer to the Japanese government is hoka hey - it's a good day to die."

    What are the Japanese people doing about this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    You would think with all of the problems Japan are facing, the expensive and needless whale hunt would be off the agenda but as usual status demands, over sense, what has been decided.


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