Is Sea Shepherd's 'harassment' helping to end Japan’s annual whale hunt?

Japan announced it was suspending its annual whale hunt in the strongest sign yet that direct action from groups like Sea Shepherd and weak consumption of whale meat in Japan are having an impact on whaling.

Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd/AP
In this photo, the Japanese whaling ship Yushin Maru No. 3 approaches the Sea Shepherd's high-speed trimaran Gojira during their encounter on Feb. 4, in Southern Ocean, Antarctica. The antiwhaling activists were chasing the fleet in the hopes of interrupting Japan's annual whale hunt.

Conservationists were cautiously celebrating today after Japan announced it was suspending its annual whale hunt, claiming its fleet’s safety had been compromised by antiwhaling activists in the Antarctic.

It isn’t clear if the order to stop whaling amounts to the beginning of the end of Japan’s annual mission to the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean. But it is the strongest sign yet that international criticism, direct action, and weak consumption of whale meat at home are having an impact.

The official line, supported almost without dissent in the Japanese media, is that the actions of the whaling fleet’s nemesis, the Sea Shepherd marine conservation group, have put the crew’s safety at risk.

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, fisheries agency official Tatsuya Nakaoku said the fleet’s mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, had been "harassed" by the Sea Shepherd vessel the Bob Barker.

The Japanese ship is now reported to be 2,000 nautical miles east of the hunting zone and heading towards Chilean waters in the Antarctic Ocean.

Sea Shepherd, meanwhile, says this winter’s campaign has been its best yet. The fleet is thought to have caught only a small number of whales – between 30 and 100 by one estimate – since it arrived in the whaling grounds at the end of December.

It had planned to catch about 1,000 mainly minke whales, using a clause in the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 ban on commercial whaling that permits Japan to catch a limited number for research purposes.

But activists insist there is another reason for the retreat. The cost to Japan, both financial and diplomatic, of “research” whaling is getting more difficult to justify at home, where there is little appetite for the fruits of the crew’s labors.

In contrast to the postwar years when whale meat was a vital source of protein and formed a regular part of school lunches, modern Japan has simply lost its appetite for the dish. Instead, thousands of tons now lies unsold in refrigerated storehouses across the country.

That whale meat has fallen out of favor was underlined last month when the Japan-based Dolphin and Whale Action Network estimated that stockpiles exceeded 6,000 tons – a record high. Japanese consumers, according to one estimate, eat the equivalent of a measly four thin slices of sashimi (raw fish) a year.

Japan’s heavily subsidized whaling industry has also been hit by allegations of widespread embezzlement. Last year two members of Greenpeace Japan were given suspended sentences after they intercepted whale meat they claimed had been smuggled off a whaling ship by crewmembers who intended to sell it on the black market.

And international pressure appears to be paying off. Australia, the most vocal antiwhaling nation and an important trading partner for Japan, has filed a complaint about the annual hunts with the international courts of justice at The Hague. This week Latin American members of the IWC joined the chorus of disapproval, urging Japan to end the research missions and respect areas that are widely regarded as whale sanctuaries.

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