The Japanese whaling fleet has yet to leave port for the Antarctic Ocean – the first time in recent memory that it has not done so by December – apparently unable to secure a refueling ship for its annual hunt, or a market for its catch.
Financial pressures, clashes with vessels from the antiwhaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a group of US-based activists, and a drop in the domestic demand for whale meat all appear to be contributing to the late departure of the fleet. Sea Shepherd’s Scott West says his organization plans to “sink the fleet economically.”
Another problem is that the refueling ship that the whaling fleet used until last winter has been retired, and the fleet appears to be having difficulty finding a replacement – essential for the months-long expedition – as companies are loath to send vessels into the whaling arena – a rather risky environment for boats given activist opposition.
“Without a refueling ship, we also expect the fleet to come back early because it is also used as a transport ship for bringing the meat back to Japan during the hunt,” says Wakao Hanaoka of Greenpeace Japan.
Japan’s so-called scientific whaling program is heavily subsidized by the government but it also depends on selling whale meat for revenue, something it is finding increasingly difficult. The program receives at least 1.2 billion yen ($14 million) a year in public money, but the Democratic Party of Japan was elected last year on a platform of slashing wasteful spending – turning up the pressure on a program with escalating debt.
“There are record stockpiles of unsold whale meat in storage, over 5,000 tons,” points out Jun Morikawa, of Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido, and author of “Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics and Diplomacy.”
“My generation ate it in the post-war period as a kind of substitute meat,” says Prof. Morikawa, “but young people have never had a culture of eating whale meat outside those local areas that try to promote it as a local food tradition.”
The tough economic times are likely also contributing to the lack of demand for what has now become something of an expensive delicacy, suggests Mr. Hanaoka.
Still, Japan maintains that its annual whaling is sustainable and necessary for the scientific study and management of whale populations. Even as the fleet is sitting in Innoshima port, about 500 miles southwest of Tokyo, officials from 27 pro-whaling countries were meeting in nearby Shimonoseki, another whaling port. A two-day meeting – convened by Japan – that wraps up today, is discussing future tactics in the light of increased international opposition at the International Whaling Commission.
Many of the attending countries are from regions such as Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean that have no direct interest in whaling. Japan has been criticized for buying their support through paying their IWC dues and providing a range of perks for attending delegates from those countries.
Meanwhile, the Sea Shepherd group – which relies on individual donors – is gaining support worldwide. Funds produced a new ship that it will use to harass the Japanese whalers, which it has named "Gojira" – after the Japanese monster known in English as Godzilla. The name of the original cinematic Godzilla was made from a combination of "gorilla" and "kujira" – the Japanese word for whale.
Mr. West said Sea Shepherd was hoping to avoid a repeat of the type of collision that occurred last year between the Shonan Maru 2 ship and the Ady Gill, which led to the sinking of the Sea Shepherd vessel. He denied that the Ady Gill’s captain had got his ship deliberately rammed by the Japanese ship, but called captain Pete Bethune – who has since fallen out with Sea Shepherd – “negligent for bringing all of his crew on to the deck like they were on a Sunday picnic when they were in a dangerous situation.” [Editors Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Captain Bethune's first name and the boat he collied with in 2009.]