Japan's Antarctic whaling fleet has left port on its annual hunt, seeking to kill 900 minke whales and 50 fin whales for what it claims are 'scientific research' purposes. (The meat from the hunt is sold commercially.)
The hunt, already controversial, has attracted greater ire from critics with an admission by the Japanese government that it is using funds earmarked for earthquake and tsunami reconstruction to subsidize the fleet's operations.
Greenpeace accused the government of diverting 2.28 billion yen (US$30m) from the earthquake recovery fund to help pay for this year's hunt.
"It is absolutely disgraceful for the Japanese government to pump yet more taxpayer money on an unneeded, unwanted and economically unviable whaling programme, when funds are desperately needed for recovery efforts," said Junichi Sato, the executive director of Greenpeace Japan, to The Guardian newspaper.
Japan's Fisheries Agency stated that the money would be used for "stabilising whale research." In the words of one official: "We will bolster measures against acts of sabotage by anti-whaling groups so as to stably carry out the Antarctic whaling research."
That was a reference to the fact that last year's hunt was called off a month early, with the fleet having caught only 172 whales, which the Fisheries Agency blamed on the attentions of Sea Shepherd. Japan's Coast Guard stated that it would be sending an unspecified number of vessels to escort the whaling fleet. Some domestic news reports indicated that there would be two escorts.
Fisheries Agency official Tatsuya Nakaoku justified the use of funds by claiming that a successful whaling program would help ensure the recovery of some coastal towns devastated by this year's tsunami.
"The government will support the reconstruction effort of a whaling town and nearby areas," he told AFP. "This program can help it reconstruct food-processing plants there… Many people in the area eat whale meat, too. They are waiting for Japan's commercial whaling to resume."
However, Greenpeace sources told Discovery News that as far as they could tell, 2 billion yen was being appropriated as a straight subsidy for the Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR), the body that runs Japan's 'research' whaling program. This is on top of an existing 700 million yen subsidy. (Update: This Wall Street journal blog quotes a Fisheries Agency official as confirming that 1.8 billion yen is for "supporting whaling research.")
They also expressed confidence that the fleet would not come close to reaching its publicly-stated quota, pointing out that, two years ago, the number of 'catchers' – or harpoon-equipped hunting vessels – in the fleet dropped from three to two, and last year it dropped further, from two to one. This year, as last year, just one catcher will be used. Within official circles in Tokyo, the sources said, the target quota is much lower, largely due to a recognition that there is not enough demand for the meat.
That view was supported by Patrick Ramage, Whale Program Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
"As always, it's important to pay attention, not to what is said but what actually happens," he told Discovery News. "On the one hand, the Japanese government is finding the funds to continue with this money-losing enterprise. On the other hand, all the signals – for example, at the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission – are that this may well be the last hurrah for Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. The current Prime Minister is a long-time advocate for and supporter of the whaling industry. But the number of those supporters in the Diet, and particularly the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, is dwindling."
IMAGE: Greenpeace inflatable hooks on to a Japanese whaling boat while it is pulling a caught whale on board. (Corbis)