Opinion: Tradition or Political Weapon?

Few animals inspire our awe and fascination as whales do. Over the past several decades, interest in whales and whale-watching has steadily increased in nations across the globe. Concern about the welfare of these animals reached such a level that the International Whaling Commission, or IWC, issued a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The Commission has made exceptions in its moratorium for both “aboriginal subsistence” and scientific research.

Japan has since emerged as the most vocal country against the IWC’s resolution, and, while consistently protesting the ban on commercial whaling, has also instituted large-scale research programs that rely primarily on lethal methods to obtain their data. The actual necessity of Japan’s research, however, has remained a source of constant controversy that has only escalated over the past two decades.

In fact, many consider Japan’s “scientific permit whaling” to be a front for the continuation of commercial whaling. Are such claims exaggerations from Greenpeace and the Australian equivalent, Sea Shepherd, to incite public anger and protest?

The Japanese Whale Research Program in Antarctica (JARPA), the nation’s major eighteen-year research program, just lapsed in 2005. According to the Mid-Period Review by the Commission, the goals of the project were to estimate biological parameters to improve management, to determine the stock identity to improve management, and to survey the role of the minke whales in the Antarctic ecosystem.

Japan was permitted to take in 400 minkes per year to continue this research, but by 1997, the Commission announced that there was serious disagreement concerning the lethal methods used to address mere “stock identity questions.”

After the program lapsed in 2005, Japan moved quickly to propose a new research project, JARPA II, which would not only double the number of minkes killed per year, but would also allow for 50 fin whales and 50 humpback whales to be hunted each year. In response to this bold proposal, the IWC held a final review of the recently lapsed JARPA project and initially determined that most of the goals had not been sufficiently investigated.

The IWC’s resolutions concerning the JARPA II program express concern that Japan has proposed to start hunting fin whales, an endangered species whose population has shown little recovery since the moratorium.

Furthermore, the Commission noted that “none of the goals of JARPA had been reached” and stated that “the aims of JARPA II do not address critically important research needs.”

Japan’s “scientific” program has, in fact, yielded little crucial data on any current biological or environmental questions. According to an IWC report, 860 minke whales were killed by Japan for scientific research in the 31 years preceding the moratorium, while 6,800 whales were killed in the 18 years of JARPA.

The huge discrepancy between these two numbers, coupled with the fact that the research was hardly fruitful, reveals the truly ambiguous nature of Japan’s claim to “scientific whaling.” Why, then, in the face of such mounting opposition from the IWC, following years of strong opposition from the United States, Canada, and Australia, among other countries, is Japan insisting on maintaining this program?

Some Japanese reference the importance of whaling in Japanese tradition and culture. According to a recent New York Times investigation, however, the consumption of whale meat only entered the mainstream culture in the years following WWII, when American forces remaining in the country suggested distributing whale meat in public schools as an easy and abundant food source. Even then, the public demand for whale meat was consistently low, and today, much of the meat taken in from Japan’s whaling expeditions eventually goes to waste.

If not for scientific research, and if not for public demand, what then is Japan’s motivation for the continued expensive slaughtering of hundreds of whales each year despite condemnation from several powerful allies?

Consider Japan’s latest proposal to begin hunting fin and humpback whales; while fin whales are endangered, humpback whales have become the showpiece of the cetacean world and the major focus of the burgeoning whale-watching industry.

The United States is one of Japan’s closest allies, and yet the U.S. is one of the most vocal opponents of its whaling program. Perhaps whaling represents some sort of call to national unity, in the face of a looming powerful ally.

If political motivation is even marginally applicable, then the slaughter of thousands of whales merely to test the limits of other countries’ tempers is inhumane. One can only hope that the government of Japan can find some more reasonable outlet through which to vent political frustration.

Further Reading
IWC Discussion of Scientific Permits:
Table of Total Catches since 1986: