TOKYO -- It may no longer be possible to consume sei whale meat in Japan from next fiscal year, following a decision by an international body regulating trade in endangered species.
In October, the standing committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), commonly known at the Washington Convention, judged that the meat of sei whales caught for scientific research is mainly being sold commercially in violation of the convention. Distributors in Japan are now wary of the prospect of criticism over the sale of the meat of whale caught this fiscal year.
Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, which captures whale meat under the nation's scientific whaling program, held an event in Tokyo on Nov. 1 at which around 100 people including distributors took part. The participants were able to sample whale meat -- a "by-product" of the scientific whaling program. The samples came from Japan's catches between May and August, totaling 134 sei whales (1,075 metric tons), and 43 minke whales (79 tons). Such events are held yearly before a ban on the sale of the whale meat is lifted.
With the standing committee's latest decision, however, an air of uncertainty hangs over the future of sei whale meat in Japan. North Atlantic sei whales are rare and the cetaceans are registered under CITES Appendix 1, to which the toughest trade restrictions apply. This means they are not allowed to be imported across the open sea or traded for commercial purposes. The standing committee has advised Japan to report on measures to be taken to correct its practices by Feb. 1 next year. The standing committee will meet again in May, and if Japan's actions are deemed insufficient, it will not be able to bring the meat of the whales into the country from next fiscal year.
Japan has maintained that its whaling is for scientific purposes, which is allowed under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and is not commercial. The convention requires that captured whales be put to effective use, and Japan has viewed the sale of whale meat as abiding by that stipulation.
Shigeto Hase, director-general of Japan's Fisheries Agency, stressed at the Nov. 1 gathering that there is no problem with the sale of whale meat caught up until now. One distribution worker, however, appeared uneasy, saying, "There's a gap between the perceptions of Japan and international society. We could be criticized for 'ignoring the advisory' after selling the meat." Some retailers have received anonymous messages saying "stop the illegal sale of whale meat," and there are concerns within the industry that bad rumors could cause damage.
From next fiscal year onward, it will become difficult for Japan to stick to the position it has taken to date, but officials have not yet decided how to respond. The Fisheries Agency is considering various responses: not catching sei whales; providing the meat for free for school lunches, etc.; discarding the whale carcasses into the sea once the research is concluded; or selling only a tiny fraction of the meat. However, if sales decrease, then it will not be possible to financially sustain the following year's scientific whaling program, and officials have yet to come up with a solution.
"The damage is large, but we can only wait for the government's decision on its direction," said Yoshihiro Fujise of the Institute of Cetacean Research.
Still, the decision by the CITES standing committee does not mean that people will become unable to consume any whale meat whatsoever in Japan. Japan did not consent to the listing of minke and some other whales on the convention's Appendix 1, so it can trade in the meat of these species.
(Japanese original by Akiko Kato, Business News Department)