Japan called off its 2014-15 Antarctic whale-hunting season and said it would redesign the mission to make it more scientific. ©Ted Martens

In May 2014 at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee annual meeting in Bled, Slovenia, the government of Japan officially announced its intentions to resume what it calls the “scientific whaling” of minkes in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary near Antarctica in the 2015-2016 season.

According to World Wildlife Fund, although scientific whaling is allowed under the convention that established the IWC, the regulations were written almost 70 years ago when lethal take was one of the only means of obtaining research data. Today, many cetacean experts believe that all of the information we need about whales can be acquired by nonlethal research and that there is no need to kill whales in order to provide the IWC with necessary data.

So, what is truly driving Japan’s whaling passion: science or culture?

The Japanese have been hunting whales for thousands of years. ©WWF-US/Michael Case

A matter of history and cultural pride

Japan has a long history with whaling; in fact, handheld harpoons dating back to 10,000 B.C. have been found. At the turn of the 20th century, the introduction of steamships and grenade-tipped harpoon guns gave the Japanese an even bigger advantage for securing whale meat. By 1934, Japan had expanded its whaling operations into Antarctica. During World War II, the hunting of whales helped keep Japanese citizens fed; so much so that by 1947, whale meat made up almost half of all animal protein consumed in the nation. By the 1960s, whales continued to make up nearly one-quarter of the Japanese diet.

Although whale meat is no longer a Japanese food staple, attempts from the outside to stop the nation’s whaling operations are perceived by many Japanese as a threat to their culture. Eating whale meat, they say, is an old and entrenched Japanese tradition, and the words and actions of foreigners who oppose Japanese whaling are culturally arrogant. According to a June 11, 2014, CNN story, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that in contrast to the foreign perception that the country’s whalers mercilessly exploit the marine mammals, the Japanese show respect by holding religious services at the end of every hunting season. “It is regrettable,” CNN reports Abe as saying, “that this part of Japanese culture is not understood.”

A circumstance of scientific sustainability

The IWC recognizes three classifications of whaling: scientific, commercial and indigenous (which allows a limited take of whales from nonendangered species to satisfy a cultural need). Japan has never had a recognized need for indigenous whaling because unlike other indigenous groups, the Japanese have always had a commercial link to whaling.

Should any whaling be permitted in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary? ©Astrid Frisch

Japan claims that there are about 761,000 minke whales in the Southern Ocean, although other estimates are in the range of 268,000. Either way, Japan believes that the animals exist in enough numbers that a return to commercial whaling of this particular species can be sustainably supported, assuming strict management of stocks and reasonable annual catch limits. The Japanese government maintains that its whaling research over the last two decades has paved the way for long-term, sustainable use of this renewable marine food resource. On June 9, 2014, The Guardian reported that Prime Minister Abe stated this is exactly the reason Japan wants to conduct its whale research: in order to obtain scientific data indispensable for the management of whale resources so that commercial whaling can be responsibly resumed.

However, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in March 2014 that special permits granted by Japan in connection with its Antarctic whale hunt are “not for purposes of scientific research pursuant to Article VIII, paragraph 1” of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. 

Japan did call off its 2014-15 Antarctic whale-hunting season and said it would redesign the mission in an effort to make it more scientific. However, a separate Japanese whale hunt does continue in the Pacific Northwest, as do hunts in coastal waters.The country is expected to submit its new proposal for hunting in Antarctica to the IWC Scientific Committee by November, six months before the next annual meeting in 2015.

Do you think Japan’s annual whale hunt in Antarctic waters is a commercial venture masquerading as research? Should the IWC and ICJ reject all bids for whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary; or given the world’s imminent food shortage, should hunting based on scientific measures of sustainability be allowed?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,