Whales are better “seen and not hurt”

Patrick Ramage

For 26 years, three countries – Japan, Iceland and Norway – have continued to hunt whales against the wishes of the rest of the world, but there are signs that they could yet change their minds, writes Patrick Ramage

As this issue of Global goes to press, our planet’s great whales are making their seasonal migrations between the equator and the poles along pathways that have been travelled for millennia. And as spring winds warm the northern hemisphere, there are signs of a thaw in the long frozen positions of Japan, Norway and Iceland – the last three countries killing whales for commercial purposes in the 21st century.

The member nations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, and yet more than 35,000 whales have been cruelly killed for their meat and other products since the ban. Most of these have been hunted by Japan, which exploits an IWC loophole permitting the taking of whales for scientific research purposes. The country has pursued a persistent, slow-motion effort to undermine the IWC moratorium and resuscitate commercial whaling and the international trade in whale meat.

During the past quarter century, varied approaches have been taken by committed governments, groups and individuals to hasten an end to this activity. Some, such as the aggressive tactics pursued by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, are based on the idea that increasing direct action and pressure on Japan from outside will ultimately force it to reconsider its whaling policies. Others have attracted notice inside Japan, including the case of Greenpeace Japan’s ‘Tokyo Two’, Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, who were held, tried, convicted and given suspended jail sentences last year for interfering in the country’s whaling programme.

The Sea Shepherds have helped put whaling back on the international media radar screen while the ‘Tokyo Two’ have put a new, decidedly Japanese, face on the domestic anti-whaling movement, introducing new arguments in the court of national public opinion.

Over the same period, my own organisation, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), has pursued a two-track strategy: working with whale-friendly governments and scientists at the IWC and other fora to increase external pressure on Japan; and supporting positive, increasingly high-profile efforts inside the country.

The IFAW and other long-term advocates are collaborating with a growing number of Japanese scientists, politicians, corporate executives and civil society representatives calling for a re-evaluation of Japan’s whaling activities. We have paid particular attention to assisting Japanese whale- and dolphin-watching operators – an increasingly vibrant and vocal constituency of business people in coastal communities from Hokkaido to Okinawa.

The emerging reality is that Japan’s domestic demand for whale meat – like that in Iceland and Norway – is in steep decline, while at the same time, responsible whale and dolphin watching now makes growing economic contributions in whaling and non-whaling countries around the world. An IFAW conference in Tokyo in December 2010 presented evidence that whale and dolphin watching now contributes an annual $2.1 billion in direct and indirect revenues in 119 countries and territories worldwide. Animals, people and coastal communities all do better when whales are seen and not hurt.

In the light of these facts and last year’s tsunami tragedy, some long-time observers in Japan and around the world have dared to hope that shifting government priorities combined with the massive recovery efforts along its devastated coast might accelerate this great nation’s exit from the whale wars. Yet all the while, wellinsulated bureaucrats deep inside the Japan Fisheries Agency lobby for continuation of the country’s coastal and high-seas whaling.

While the Japanese public loses its yen for whale meat, its government spends more and more yen on whaling. This April, Japan’s ageing Nisshin Maru factory ship and a four-ship whaling fleet will return from the slaughter in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary with less than a third of its self-allocated ‘scientific’ quota. Perhaps there are far fewer whales to be had in Antarctica than the Fisheries Agency has so long alleged, or perhaps – it would be vain to deny it – the Sea Shepherds are actually having an impact.

The next IWC meeting will be held in Panama in early July and the three whaling countries will again be under the spotlight. But, however much whale lovers worldwide might wish, the decision to finally end commercial whaling will not be made on the floor of the IWC (where a ban has already been achieved), nor in London, Wellington or Washington. The decision will be made in Tokyo, Reykjavik and Oslo – by the Japanese, Icelanders and Norwegians for reasons that make sense to them.

Certainly in Japan’s case, that decision is much closer now than a year ago. Pouring hard-earned taxpayer money into the outmoded, unsustainable whaling industry makes even less sense post-tsunami than before it. The continuing political fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster may yet engulf pro-whaling Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his cabinet as it did his predecessor. Dangerous political currents in a sea of Japanese taxpayers, their anxiety already heightened by pending tax increases to underwrite the crippling costs of the March 2011 tragedy, could trigger political aftershocks.

The good people of Japan, who have so marvellously picked themselves up in the past, will ultimately rise to the occasion. They and their country will recover. And one ripple effect of that recovery may well be their elected government reconciling itself to the international consensus in favour of whale conservation.

About the author:

Patrick Ramage directs the Whale Programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare


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