Japan has run out of excuses to hunt whales, but it’s going to keep doing it anyway

Scientific research?
Scientific research?
Image: Reuters/Kyodo
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Japan has long killed whales for their meat, skirting global conservation measures by claiming that these hunts were for ”scientific research” on Antarctic whale populations. But then Australia took Japan to the International Court of Justice to protest these claims, and in March of 2013, the ICJ called that Orwellian bluff, ruling that there were no legitimate scientific purposes behind Japan’s whale-killing program—and that Japan couldn’t hunt Antarctic whales anymore.

There’s just one problem: Japan didn’t see it that way.

On Monday, prime minister Shinzo Abe said Japan aims to resume whale-hunting “in order to obtain scientific information indispensable to the management of the whale resources.” Yesterday, Joji Morishita, Japan’s delegate to the International Whaling Commission, went further, asserting that the ICJ decision supported Japan’s position on whaling for “scientific research,” and that his country would relaunch research whaling in the 2015/2016 season, with the aim of achieving “sustainable whaling.”

The whaling commission allows countries to hunt whales for research purposes only, though the whale meat that is a byproduct of this research can legally be sold. Japan says it will submit a new plan to the commission to explain its scientific justifications.

The thing is, despite a long Japanese tradition of eating whale, there is no longer much—if any—demand for whale meat in Japan, as you can see from the chart below, from the animal protection advocacy group International Fund for Animal Welfare. Still, the government tries to convince its citizens to eat the stuff, even sponsoring awareness campaigns to drum up demand, such as the “Whale Week” currently underway:

Image: International Fund for Animal Welfare

Japan says the whale species it targets are abundant enough to hunt, maintaining that it must do so to gather “whale sampling data“—for whale population research.

But despite all that “research,” reliable population data for the species Japan targets are hard to come by. Blue whales, for instance, are classified as “endangered,” their populations reduced by 3% to 11% compared with the pre-whaling era. The population of other species, like the bowhead whale, is thought to be approaching pre-whaling size. So scarce is data on minke whales in the southern hemisphere that no one really knows what their population is. What is known is that Japan killed 3,600 of them in the last nine years alone.

This enterprise doesn’t come cheap, and the revenue from the sale of the whale meat doesn’t cover the cost of the hunts. The already heavily indebted Japanese government has to subsidize the program, to the tune of a projected $5 billion yen ($49 million) this fiscal year:

Image: International Fund for Animal Welfare

So why continue the hunts, if their scientific basis is questionable, they are a financial burden, and the Japanese no longer crave the meat? As Abe said on Monday, the program is also designed to preserve Japanese culture (i.e. the traditional whale-fishing culture that began on an industrial scale in the early 20th century in a small region of Japan). And the renewed emphasis may or may not have something to do with the recent World Trade Organization ruling in favor of protecting European cultural rights in a dispute with Canada over the seal-product trade.

While Antarctic whales are safe from the harpoons of Japanese scientists—for now—those in the Pacific Northwest aren’t. Since the ICJ decision halted Antarctic operations, the Japanese government has continued to launch its Pacific hunt, which killed 319 whales last season, compared with 103 in the Antarctic.