Japan announced this week at the International Whaling Commission in the city of Ulsan, South Korea, that it will more than double its annual whale catch for scientific purposes in what critics say may turn the tide against decades of protecting the sea mammals.
Activists have fiercely condemned the move, and antiwhaling Australia passed a nonbinding resolution Wednesday calling on Japan to halt the program, which is allowed under IWC rules.
While votes on various measures at the week-long plenary have narrowly favored the antiwhaling camp, the IWC may be on the verge of moving away from being a conservation-minded organization back to being the whaling regulation body it started out as in 1946. Most resolutions have only been passed by a margin of three or four votes.
More nations from Asia, Northern Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean are now saying that the 66-member group ought to be less concerned with protecting whales than with promoting more hands-on environmental management as some whale species have recovered.
Japan points in particular to a surge in the number of minke whales. Whale researchers here have found that minke whales have swelled by a factor of 10 in the last 100 years to over 934,000 and are contributing to the depletion of fish stocks around the world. Other population estimates of the minke range between half a million to well over a million.
This not only hurts the international fishing industry "but also coincides with an alarming drop in numbers of other whale species," says Masayuki Komatsu, a director at a fisheries research agency affiliated with the Japanese government. He points in particular to the plight of the blue whale, which number a mere 2,000 or so today. "If you do the math on the amount of fish that minke whales require to survive, that leaves much less food for the blue whale," he says.
But he adds any increase in the minke whale catch will have to be "handled very carefully" due to likely resulting changes in the ecosystem.
However, other scientists dispute the dangers whales pose to commercial fishing. Kristin Kaschner, a marine biologist at Canada's University of British Columbia in Vancouver, found that human fishing and whale feeding take place in completely different zones of the ocean, according to Agence France-Presse.
Japan plans to double its annual catch of minkes to 935 from 440 and add up to 50 larger fin and humpback whales to the list within a few years under its new scientific research program. The program is widely seen as a cover for a limited amount of commercial whaling by staunchly conservationist nations such as Australia and New Zealand. Scientists from the antiwhaling lobby refused to review Japan's new plan in Ulsan claiming it lacked credibility, but didn't submit any evidence refuting Tokyo's position that some whale species have recovered, despite being invited to do so.
While the IWC voted Tuesday to keep the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling in place, the expansion of Japan's whale catch is a bitter blow to antiwhaling groups who argue the practice is barbarous.
"There is no humane way to kill a whale at sea and all commercial and scientific whaling should cease on grounds of cruelty alone," says Leah Garces, a cam- paign director for the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals.
But countries like Japan and Norway see the opposition to whaling as stemming from a combination of poor environmental management skills and cultural intolerance. Whaling in Japan dates back 5,000 years and has a tradition of using the entire carcass not just the oil and blubber, according to the Japan Whaling Association. The association recently held a symposium at Waseda University in Tokyo to encourage young people not to abandon their culinary heritage. At the meeting, advertised around the campus with posters reading "It's OK to Eat Whale!" the head of the association told students that it is important "to always respect the food cultures of different peoples ... as well as understand scientific facts correctly."
The majority of older Japanese remember when whale was served up in school lunches.
Whalers in resource-poor nations lost a lucrative income when the moratorium took effect and while some hope to return to hunting the giant sea mammals, animal rights groups have recently been encouraged to see more fishermen in Asia and the Caribbean trade in their harpoons for dolphin and whale watching tour boats.
As the influence of pro-whaling countries in the IWC has grown in recent years, relations with conservationists have understandably been strained. The antiwhaling lobby has accused Japan of enticing nations without coastlines such as Mongolia into joining the IWC, while Tokyo says that Australia and New Zealand pursued the same tactic with the landlocked Czech Republic.
Many in the antiwhaling camp fear that whaling nations will try to expand their influence to roll back conservation-based schemes and lay the groundwork for resumption of commercial hunting. Overturning the 19-year-old ban on commercial whaling would require a three-quarters majority at next year's IWC meeting.
Japan claims that its whale hunts provide a wealth of scientific information, including whale counts and their impact on fish populations.
Conservationists, however, argue that Japan doesn't need to kill whales to study them when tissue samples can be obtained by darts. The research, they argue, is just commercial whaling in disguise, as the whale meat is sold.
Japan argues that the whales must be killed to determine the animals' diet. According to one Japanese study, half of the 75 species of cetaceans eat as much as 87 million metric tons of fish - more than the entire global fish harvest. But other scientists counter that whales and humans rarely actually compete for fish.
Source: Agence France-Presse