The Yomiuri Shimbun Monday marked the resumption of Japan’s commercial whaling after a 31-year hiatus. It was a moment that people in the whaling industry had long been anticipating. However, it remains unclear whether the currently sluggish market for whale meat will improve, and a backlash from anti-whaling countries is likely.
With the resumption of whaling, Japanese vessels are now free to catch whales of certain species in numbers that do not exceed government-set catch limits.
Japanese vessels conducting research whaling had to navigate in waters where there were no whales and could not choose the size of the whales they caught. Therefore, the annual production volume of whale meat that reached the market as a by-product of research whaling fluctuated between 2,000 tons and 5,000 tons over the last 10 years. Fuel and other costs had also been increasing.
The whaling industry expects production will increase.
“From now on, we’re aiming to catch large whales in a short period of time,” said a crew member of the Nisshin Maru, the mothership of a whaling fleet that set out for whaling grounds from Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Joji Morishita, a professor of international marine policy at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, said, “Production costs are expected to decrease, which will help streamline operations.”
If the amount of whale meat on the market increases, the price could decrease to the point that whale meat hits supermarket shelves and sees a resurgence in popularity.
However, several challenges must be overcome.
For instance, though the government compiled a budget for research whaling that included an annual subsidy of about ¥5 billion, no national subsidies will be provided for commercial whaling. A sound business model is needed to secure profitability.
In recent years, annual whale meat consumption in Japan has been around 3,000 tons, about one-eightieth of the more than 230,000 tons consumed in the peak year of fiscal 1962. People in the younger generation who have never eaten whale meat are increasing. A resurgence in whale meat consumption is far from a sure thing.
“There’s no point if demand doesn’t increase along with supply. It’s necessary to boost demand for whale meat,” said Hideki Moronuki, the counselor of the Fisheries Agency.
Yoshifumi Kai, the head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association, said, “I’m concerned about the future because I don’t know how much whale meat will be sold and what the costs will be.”
In the first year, six commercial whaling businesses will jointly operate vessels and share the sales.
Backlash from anti-whaling states
Anti-whaling countries may also continue their opposition after Japan resumes commercial whaling.
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, known as the “marine constitution,” stipulates that state parties to the international accord shall “work through appropriate international organizations” to conduct whaling activities. Japan does not belong to an international whaling organization after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission.
Japan insists that resuming commercial whaling does not violate the convention because it will remain involved in the IWC as an “observer” through conducting visual research in the Antarctic Ocean and providing scientific data.
However, there is a risk that anti-whaling countries could file suit with international court, claiming that Japan’s activities as an IWC observer do not constitute “working through appropriate international organizations.”
According to the Fisheries Agency, the quotas it announced on Monday are intended to ensure there is no negative impact on the whale population “even if whaling were to continue for 100 years.”
“Japan will conduct appropriate resource management grounded in science,” said a Foreign Ministry official
It is necessary for Japan to notify other countries about how it conducts whaling to obtain their understanding.