The Shadow of Slaughter Hangs Over Whales

In the next 10 days, Japan’s long campaign to end the hunting moratorium could pay off. As offers of aid sway poorer nations to side with pro-whalers, conservationists fear the tide is turning.

It is early morning in Tokyo, and the narrow streets of Tsukiji fish market are already packed with shoppers inspecting the overnight catch. At this time of day they are spoilt for choice: salmon, crab, shrimps, enormous sides of tuna and enough dried fish to last a lifetime. Tucked away among row upon row of exquisitely fresh seafood are the telltale red and white slivers of flesh, presented, rather unattractively, in tightly sealed polythene bags: whale meat.

Within the next 10 days the pro-whaling nations of Japan, Norway and Iceland are expected to win control of the International Whaling Commission meeting on the Caribbean island of St Kitts and begin wholesale changes to the regulatory body that could, in the near future, see Tsukiji’s ageing stalls once again creak under an abundance of whale meat.

The three whaling nations, which continue to hunt limited numbers of whales in the name of ‘scientific research’, believe they are closer than ever to securing 51 per cent of the votes among the IWC’s 69 members.

To scrap the IWC’s 1986 ban on commercial whaling they would need a three-quarters majority – both sides agree that that is unlikely to happen in St Kitts – but even a slim majority would mark the death knell of a ban that environmentalists hail as one of their greatest achievements.

Though they sense victory on St Kitts, pro-whalers in Japan attempted to play down the vote’s significance. ‘I don’t think we can expect any major changes if Japan wins,’ said Konomu Kubo of the Japan Whaling Association. ‘Both camps have a similar number of countries on their side, so it really is too close to call at the moment. But I’m confident that the momentum is with the countries that want to get rid of the ban.’

In a last-ditch attempt to prevent that, anti-whaling nations have spent recent days lobbying smaller IWC nations to attend the 16-20 June meeting and make their voices heard. Leading the campaign is Australia, which has tried to stop Japanese whaling fleets from operating in the South Pacific and the Southern Ocean.

The environment minister, Ian Campbell, recently led delegations to Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu to urge them to fend off any overtures from Japan. ‘This year’s IWC vote is crunch time for the survival of whales and every vote will be critical,’ he said.

‘Should the vote go the way of the whalers … this will raise interest to levels I haven’t seen since the 1970s. The outrage that will surge up around the world will force a lot of public attention on those key votes.’ Days later, the Marshall Islands joined the IWC and indicated they would vote with Japan.

The future of the 20-year-old ban appears shakier than ever, despite its success in forcing pro-whaling nations to largely leave whales alone to recover after hundreds of years of hunting that took them to the brink of extinction. Between 1904 and 1986 about 2 million whales were killed in the southern hemisphere alone. By the early 1980s, unregulated whaling had reduced the number of humpback and grey whales by an estimated 98 per cent.

Whaling countries began scientific hunts the year after the ban went into effect, but catches continued to drop every year for a decade, reaching a low of 731 in 1994. The number of minke whales is estimated at several hundred thousand.

Now the tide is turning again. A loophole in IWC regulations allows pro-whaling countries to hunt about 2,000 whales a year in the name of scientific research. When the ‘research’ is done, the meat is packed and sold in Japanese restaurants and supermarkets.

Last year about 1,300 whales were killed during scientific hunts, and early this year whaling fleets returned with more than 2,100. Norway’s cull of 1,052 minke whales in the North Atlantic this year was its highest since the ban went into effect. Japan, meanwhile, returned from the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary with 850 minke whales – twice the previous season’s take – as well as 10 fin whales, a species listed as endangered. Only last week a Japanese fleet left for the northwest Pacific, where it hopes to catch 260 minke whales.

But if Japan and its allies win a majority in St Kitts they will have the mandate they need to use the way the IWC operates to their advantage. Campaigners fear their first step would be to end the observer status of Greenpeace and other environmental groups. The pro-whalers would also be able to abolish the commission’s conservation committee and introduce secret ballots, allowing smaller countries to vote with Japan without fear of upsetting aid donors such as the US.

Last year Japan came tantalisingly close to achieving a majority, only to be let down by poorer member countries that either failed to turn up at the meeting in South Korea or were barred from voting because they had not paid their fees.

Tokyo has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent a repeat of the debacle. Last month the foreign ministry convened a secret meeting of pro-whaling countries to discuss tactics ahead of the IWC meeting. An official in the ministry’s whaling division denied that aid packages had been discussed, but conceded that the parties had agreed on ‘logistics’ to ensure that poorer Pacific and African nations made the journey to St Kitts.

Since 1998, Japan has persuaded 19 new countries to join the IWC, but it rebuts claims that it has done so by dangling generous aid packages in front of desperately poor countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Japan has increased aid to Belize, Mali and other countries that have recently joined the IWC but have yet to vote. Earlier this year it pledged more than $1m to the Pacific island of Tuvalu, a pro-whaling IWC member, and has reached similar deals with Nauru and Kiribati and other impoverished Pacific islands.

But even if commercial whaling resumes, Japan’s whale hunters cannot be sure there will be demand for their catch back home: their compatriots appear to have lost their appetite for the oily, chewy flesh.

‘Consumption is decreasing and stock is increasing,’ said Junichi Sato, campaign director of Greenpeace Japan. ‘Coastal regions once had a tradition of limited local whaling, but we never used to send fleets of ships out to the Southern Ocean. It is pretty obvious that whaling is no longer a part of our culture.’

A 2002 survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that only 4 per cent of respondents ate whale meat ‘sometimes’ and 9 per cent ‘infrequently’. By contrast, 86 per cent said they had never eaten the meat or had stopped doing so in childhood.

‘The only time one hears news of whale meat selling out is when it is given away for free in whale soup at some event,’ Junko Sakuma, a former Greenpeace official turned freelance writer, said. ‘Despite this, there are plans to substantially increase production. Really? Will the meat actually sell?’

Officials in Tokyo have started playing up whale meat’s part in the traditional Japanese diet, hailing it as a healthy, low-fat alternative to meat. Last month the government set up a company that will market the meat to schools, hospitals and family restaurants in a bid to boost consumption and reduce stockpiles.

Conservationists attribute whale meat’s near disappearance from Japanese dinner tables to a combination of changing diet and sensitivity about eating an animal that leaves much of the rest of the world in awe. Such is the sensitivity surrounding whale cuisine that the Women’s Forum for Fish, a Tokyo-based circle that promotes whale cuisine, refused to discuss its activities when approached by The Observer.

Faced with the embarrassing prospect of primary schoolchildren turning up their collective nose at what was once an important part of the traditional diet, Japanese whaling officials have turned to children for help. Last year, schoolchildren in Wakayama prefecture, the home of the Japanese whaling industry, were give deep-fried whale meat in their school lunches, and there are plans to extend the school meals programme to other areas.

‘It will be difficult to increase consumption because young people aren’t interested in eating whale meat,’ said Nanami Kurasawa, director-general of the Dolphin and Whale Action network.

‘Most Japanese don’t like to talk about whaling, but they also believe the government line that whales are responsible for decimating fish stocks. But it is people, not whales, who are responsible for eating too much fish.’

The whaling lobby counters that whale meat consumption has slumped as a direct result of the IWC ban. ‘It means that the amount of meat on the market dropped, and the price went up,’ said Kubo. ‘People can no longer cook whale meat at home – that’s why consumption is down. If it cost the same as other types of fish and meat, I am sure consumption would rise again.

‘Because the meat available now comes from scientific hunts, it isn’t freely available. Its sale is limited by all sorts of red tape, so the price just keeps going up.’

This week’s meeting is certain to be one of the most acrimonious since the IWC was formed in 1946. Whaling officials in Tokyo have repeated their threat to leave the body and set up a rival, pro-whaling organisation should it fail to win a majority. ‘If things go on like this,’ said Hideki Moronuki, head of the whaling section at the Fisheries Agency, ‘there’s definitely the danger that voices asking whether the IWC is needed will increase.’

Wonder Beneath the Waves

  • Sperm whales dive as deep as two miles below the sea surface and stay down for up to an hour and a half. Their brains can weigh up to 20 lbs, the largest of any creature, and they sleep upside down, with their heads pointing towards the bottom of the ocean.
  • Blue whales grow to more than 100 feet long, six times bigger than a brontosaurus. A blue whale has a heart the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. A newborn is around 20 feet long and drinks 50-150 gallons of milk a day, adding about 8 lbs to its body weight an hour.
  • Humpback whales sing ‘love songs’. In the mating season, the males sing to the females. Those who sing longest are most successful.
  • It’s difficult to tell the sex of a whale on sight. Its penis is called a dork, which has become a term of abuse in some parts of the world.
  • Killer whales have such a good sense of touch that if you dropped a pill into a bucket of fish and fed it to one, it could eat the fish and spit out the pill.
  • The ‘strapped toothed’ whale is named for the two teeth in its bottom jaw which ‘strap’ the upper jaw, preventing it from opening very much. How these animals eat is not known, but one theory is that they stun their prey with high intensity sound.
  • Whales use layers of water in the sea to communicate with each other over long distances. Fin whales talk to each other while 2,000 miles apart.
  • Most whales have five fingers in their flippers.
  • Whale products included animal feed, industrial oils, fertiliser, perfume, soap, shampoo and margarine. George Washington’s false teeth were made of whalebone.
  • Whaling fleets are equipped with sonar, helicopters and long-range explosive harpoons. The whale is killed by a 6 foot long iron harpoon shot from a cannon. The harpoon head contains a time-fuse grenade which blows the whale’s insides apart seconds after impact, though this does not usually kill it immediately.
  • In the 1930-31 hunting season 30,000 blue whales were killed. By the Fifties the species had practically disappeared.