Opinion

How Japan can save face -- and whales

Japan has given the world green cars and technological marvels. It wouldn’t be a stretch for it to lead the 21st century protecting the world’s oceans and whales.

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The antiquated and brutal whaling industry is dying, yet the world is on the brink of a return to commercial whaling. This backward step, however, can be prevented by Japan, the very country which seems to have precipitated this regression.

In a deal to be brokered this week at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Morocco, the United States is backing Japan, Norway, and Iceland in their annual bid to lift the 25-year moratorium on whale hunting.

Those three nations have previously refused to follow the ban. The new deal, which would legalize Japan’s controversial “scientific whaling” is an effort to coax them into cooperating by enforcing quotas.

Readers weigh in: Is Japan right? Should the IWC ban on commercial whale hunting be lifted?

Before the implementation of the ban, 38,000 whales were slaughtered a year; after implementation of the ban, the number killed dropped to 2,000. Yet the world has only barely begun to recover some species that were brutally destroyed during centuries of whaling.

We are only beginning to understand how marine life sustains the planet. Whales are an intricate and essential part of our marine planet. Allowing a return, even in part, to commercial whaling would devastate oceans already under siege by climate change, plastics pollution, catastrophic oil spills, and rising carbon levels.

Twentieth-century whale research has revealed some startling facts: humpbacks sing lullabies to their young, blue whales communicate over thousands of miles, gray whales can live over one hundred years.

Just this month, there is new evidence that sperm whales offset the sea’s increasing carbon levels by simply defecating. ABC News reports that “whales can remove about 400,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year ... making the sperm whale a carbon-neutral mammal.” What else might we discover in the 21st century about how whales contribute to keeping our seas healthy?

If we return to commercial whaling, we may lose the knowledge that maintaining the moratorium has given us. Why is Japan looking backward when we desperately need new ocean conservation?

Japan is utilizing a loophole in the 1986 International Whaling Commission ban against commercial whaling, to kill hundreds of whales every year for scientific research. Once a whale is killed, scientists collect data from the animal’s remains then the meat is sold. Japan maintains that the research is essential for managing the whale population.

Japan has also cited its long history as a whaling nation and its historic reliance on whale meat for protein as reasons why it should be continued to allow to hunt despite the ban. But consumption has become so negligible that, in 2007, local governments had to encourage schools to incorporate whale in their lunch programs, while thousands of tons of whale meat remain stockpiled in freezers, according to Time Magazine.

Other experts speculate that Japan’s refusal to comply with a ban has to do with the fact that its government just doesn’t like to be told what to do. But Japan has a chance this week to not only save face on this issue, but take its place as a world leader in ocean conservation.

The citizens of Japan are ready for it. When I was fortunate enough to visit Japan in the late 1990s at the invitation of Japanese publishers, I was impressed with a burgeoning environmental movement, which had made Henry David Thoreau’s "Walden" a national bestseller. I discovered that the Japanese I spoke with seem more enlightened environmentally than their government.

Two of my Japanese friends, Yoshiko and Masumi, recently joined our research trip to birthing lagoons in Baja, Mexico.

When the gray whale calves curiously came to the boat to be touched, Yoshiko began singing a traditional Japanese lullaby, “Sakura, sakura, yayoi no sora wa (Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms, as far as I can see.)” The barnacles on the whale’s skin looked just like the luminous blooming flowers in Yoshiko’s native country.

That same spring during the Japanese cherry blossom festival, a single gray whale swam into Tokyo Bay. It seemed all of Tokyo came out to greet the rare, solitary whale. There had only been 12 gray whale sightings around Japan since the 1960s; the Western Pacific population is all but extinct.

“TV footage showed holidaymakers on nearby wharves cheering wildly as the whale came into sight and blew water high into the air,” reported the Mail & Guardian.

When I sent Yoshiko this news, she wrote back, “They do not tell us much about Japanese whaling in our newspapers. We are speaking for the whales here in our country. And many Japanese are listening – especially the young people.”

So what can Japan do?

The world’s oceans and marine life need far-sighted conservation, alternative energies, and ecosystem health.

And Japan is, after all, a country that has given the world green cars and technological marvels. Its inventions in health and communications lead the world.

If Japan wants to show pride and save face, why not build upon the enlightened 2000 decision by Mitsubishi to preserve pristine gray whale birthing lagoons in Mexican biospheres by not building a salt factory in those whale nurseries?

What if Japan, an island nation, vowed to lead the world in ocean conservation, practicing far-sighted self-restraint and ending this old-fashioned and wasteful whaling?

Whales are already proven to be worth more alive than dead, bringing millions in whale watching and tourism to coastal communities. Whalers could be trained instead to study whales and our marine systems in nonlethal, truly scientific ways. Japan has already brought its technology and green genius to hybrid automobiles. Why not employ that same ecological vision to saving our oceans?

Japan has the support within its country to end whale hunting. If it stepped up and accepted the challenge, Japan could lead a 21st century legacy of celebrating our ocean’s home and our fellow, sentient mammals. That would be a golden age.

Brenda Peterson is the author of “Sightings: The Gray Whale’s Mysterious Journey.”

Other articles on the whaling debate we think you might enjoy:

Readers weigh in: Is Japan right? Should the IWC ban on commercial whale hunting be lifted?

Book review: The Whale

Global News Blog: Sea Shepherd and Japan escalate annual whaling war

Blog: Whale Wars: Sea Shepherd Watson threatens citizen arrests, says donations pouring in

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