Is This The End of Antarctic Whaling?

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First the whaling fleet was headed north toward the Atlantic. Then it made a U-turn: possibly heading back toward Antarctica’s Ross Sea, or possibly in the direction of Australia and New Zealand, and thence, perhaps, to Japan.

The available evidence – from published statements to information from inside sources – indicates that Japan’s whaling fleet is calling it quits, at least for this season, two months and hundreds of whales earlier than usual.

“Putting safety as a priority, the fleet has halted scientific whaling for now,” Tatsuya Nakaoku of Japan’s Fisheries Agency told Reuters this week. The safety issue to which he referred was Sea Shepherd, whose ships have been harassing the fleet since the start of this season, and which appears to have reduced the catch substantially.

BLOG: Do Whales Need This War?

Despite the criticism that has been directed toward Sea Shepherd (including by a certain blogger), the organization’s tactics this year appear to have been hugely successful in limiting the number of whales being killed. But there is a growing confidence among environmentalists that this week’s developments mark not just a suspension of this year’s hunt, but the beginning of the end of Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic – an outcome that is likely the result of several factors that have been bubbling beneath the surface and have now all come to a boil at once:

Opposition Is Hardening In the Region: New Zealand and, especially, Australia have been among the most vocal opponents of Japan’s Antarctic whaling for years, but of late that pressure has increased. The Australian government has filed a lawsuit against Japan via the International Court of Justice, arguing that the so-called scientific whaling program violates Japan’s obligations under international law. And increasingly, the countries of South America have become perhaps the most reliable anti-whaling bloc within the International Whaling Commission. Prior to Japan’s announcement of the suspension of its hunt, the so-called Buenos Aires Group of IWC members – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay – issued a statement expressing “their strongest rejection to the announced ‘scientific whaling’ hunting of almost a thousand whales included some in the threatened species category, planned for the Southern Whale Sanctuary.” And the Chilean government said its navy would “monitor the movements” of the fleet’s factory ship.

There Is Very Little Demand For The Meat: For years, opponents of Japan’s whaling have been pointing out that the cruelest irony of all is that it is being conducted to procure meat that fewer and fewer people in Japan want to eat. Despite efforts to expand the market and increase consumption, the fleet’s supply has exceeded demand for years, resulting in a deep-frozen whale meat stockpile. Last month, it was claimed that that stockpile hit an all time high of over 6,000 tonnes.

The Industry Is Broke: Because the industry is economically unsustainable on its own merits, it has long been heavily subsidized by the government, which spent a total of US$164 million between 1988 and 2009, according to an analysis by WWF. That was a lot to spend even when the economy was flush, but may simply have been unsustainable now that the country’s budgetary situation is dire. The first firm indications that the financial rug was being pulled out from beneath the industry came when the fleet departed for the Antarctic this season later than usual, and with fewer vessels.

“The reduced size of the Japanese whaling fleet means they will be unable to catch more than half of their quota,” predicted Wakao Hanaoka of Greenpeace at the time. “We are witnessing the further collapse of the already dying whaling industry: unable to retain crew or maintain public support- we will see them back in Japan much earlier than in previous years.”

Then there are the potential complications caused by future financial uncertainties, among them a new requirement by the International Maritime Organization that, beginning next season, no vessel running on heavy fuel oil (as does the whaling fleet) will be allowed to operate in Antarctic waters.

The Industry Has Been Publicly Disgraced in Japan. In 2008, Greenpeace produced evidence that the whaling operation was riddled with corruption; for example, crew members on board the fleet’s factory ship Nisshin Maru were stealing whale meat. Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki of Greenpeace intercepted a box of whale meat that had been sent from the Nisshin Maru and labeled as “cardboard,” and presented it to the authorities. The unexpected response was that the two were arrested, detained without charge for 23 days, ultimately found guilty of theft, and given a one-year suspended sentence. But the attempts to deflect attention and blame ultimately failed. In December, the Fisheries Agency of Japan (FAJ) admitted that five officials were to be punished for accepting gifts of whale meat from the whaling company. To make matters worse, those officials sailed on board the Nisshin maru as supervisors, their mandate specifically to prevent such illegality. Yoyohiko Ota of the Fisheries Agency bowed apologetically on television as he announced the news.

Subsequently, the FAJ has announced it has reprimanded two more officials, including Jun Yamashita, the agency’s number two civil servant and a prominent member of the country’s IWC delegation.

All of the above prompted Sato to blog just a few weeks ago that, “Japanese whaling will come to an end – the question is simply when.”

In the Antarctic at least, the answer to that question just might be: very soon indeed.

Photograph of a whale on the deck of the factory ship Nisshin Maru in Antarctic waters, by Kate Davison/Greenpeace.

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