333 dead minke whales: How does Japan justify whaling?

After an almost four-month expedition in the Antarctic, Japan's whaling fleet returns to port with 333 dead minke whales. And despite international criticism, the Japanese say they are justified, both legally and morally.

Families of crew members wave as Japanese whaling vessel Yushin Maru leaves for the Antarctic Ocean from a port in Shimonoseki, southwestern Japan, Dec. 1, 2015.

Japan’s four-ship whaling fleet returned from the Antarctic Sea on Thursday with 333 dead minke whales.

After taking a yearlong break because of international opposition, Japan’s whaling fleet set off for Antarctica in early December to fill its quota of 333 minke whales, returning with 103 males and 230 females, most of which were pregnant. And despite continued international criticism from wildlife advocates and politicians, Japan’s annual hunt is legal under the International Whaling Commission, which permits limited whaling for scientific purposes.

The IWC’s moratorium, signed by 88 countries in 1986, prohibits commercial whaling of any kind. But, swimming upstream from the rest of the world, Japan continues whaling, defending the practice legally by appealing to science and morally by appealing to tradition.

While nonlethal research methods are adequate for studying whale behavior, some necessary research demands lethal methods, argue representatives of the Japan Whaling Association, a trade group that promotes whaling. “A large range of information is needed for the management and conservation of whales, such as population, age structure, growth rates, age of maturity, reproductive rates, feeding, nutrition and levels of contaminants,” the group says. Acquiring this information can’t be done through small DNA samples, they say; the whales have to be killed.  

According to The Institute of Cetacean Research, Japanese-initiated lethal research has discovered new information about this whale species. Instead of five or six stocks of minke whales in the Antarctic Ocean, there are really just two large stocks. And Antarctic minke whales are growing faster, say Japanese researchers, because the krill surplus from past commercial overhunting of other whale species has allowed minke whales to harvest a newly available food source without competition, in turn allowing more of the population to have successful reproduction. 

And while this loophole in the IWC agreement allows the Japanese government to fulfill a whale quota each year without any international legal challenges, another validation is at work in Japan.

To many Japanese, whales are just another fish. 

Dr. Keiko Hirata, a political scientist at California State University – Northridge, explains in a paper that “the symbol for whale (pronounced kujira) includes within it a component that means fish. Considering whales as fish, most Japanese lack any special love of whales and disagree with Western animal rights activists who insist on whales’ rights.” 

And the Japanese government views international protests as hypocritical and an example of cultural prejudice.

“Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers, and the English being asked to go without fish and chips,” explains the Japan Whaling Association. “No nations should try to impose their attitudes on others. Anti-whaling countries regard whales as sacred, and want the ban on whaling to continue on the grounds that a humane killing method is not ensured or that whaling itself is unethical.” 

Japan has just over 1.7 percent of the world’s population but consumes six percent of the world’s fish harvest. The island nation imports more seafood than any other country and consumes 81 percent of the world’s fresh tuna, reports Yale 360. 

And if seafood is integral to our culture, ask the Japanese, why protect the minke whales, two whale species who number almost 800,000 worldwide? 

Yet almost nobody in Japan eats whale. A 2006 survey found that 19 out of 20 Japanese people have eaten whale rarely or never, and a 2012 investigation found that 88.8 percent of Japanese people had not purchased it in the past 12 months. 

In justifying their consumption of whales, the Whaling Association cites Dr. Margaret Klinowska from Cambridge University, a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, who said that “In most species of cetaceans, the brain is neither very large nor especially complex [and] whales betray little evidence of behavioral complexity beyond that of a herd of cows or deer.”

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