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Japan's IWC withdrawal raises concerns about whaling's commercial viability


TOKYO -- The government's announcement that Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to resume commercial whaling has raised concerns over whether the hunt will be economically viable.

Some critics also fear that the decision, which faces stiff international criticism, will adversely affect Japan's diplomatic status.

"Even if commercial whaling is resumed, it won't be viable as a business. Japan's whaling culture will decline unless supported by the national government," said Hideki Tokoro, a board member of Tokyo-based research whaling firm Kyodo Senpaku Co.

People eat sei whale meat caught under Japan's research whaling program, in Tokyo on Nov. 1, 2018. (Mainichi/Akiko Kato)

During the 30-year gap in commercial whaling, the demand for whale meat has declined significantly. Approximately 70 percent of Japan's domestic whale meat is a byproduct of research whaling. Research whaling, in which a certain number of whales are caught in accordance with an annual plan, is a stable source of whale meat supplied to the market at reasonable prices.

Regarding the government's plan to end research whaling, Mitsuo Tani, who runs a restaurant in Tokyo specializing in whale, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I'm worried about whether a sufficient volume of meat can be secured. The price could spike."

Japan's whaling has been at the mercy of the international situation. According to Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry statistics, the consumption of whale meat, which totaled over 230,000 metric tons in 1962, had fallen to 3,000 tons in 2012.

After the IWC implemented a commercial whaling moratorium in 1982, the price of whale meat rose sharply, causing domestic consumption to plummet.

"Japan could be hit by a food crisis. We mustn't lose the culture of eating whale meat," said Tokoro.

This November 2017 file photo shows families sending off crew members on a research whaling ship heading for the Antarctic Ocean from the port of Shimonoseki, in the western Japan prefecture of Yamaguchi. (Mainichi/Rika Uemura)

After Japan officially pulls out of the IWC, possibly in June next year, the government will lift a ban on catching large cetaceans in the country's territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). However, the Institute of Cetacean Research has expressed concerns about whether commercial whaling will be profitable.

"The number of whales coming close to Japan changes each year. Commercial whaling (in Japan's territorial waters and EEZ) will be different from the primarily high seas hunts of over 30 years ago. We're not sure whether commercial whaling will get on track once resumed," said an institute official.

Currently, six fisheries business operators have permission for coastal whaling. They use five vessels to catch whales in the waters around the Japanese archipelago, and unload their hauls at ports in Hokkaido, Miyagi, Chiba and Wakayama prefectures.

Fisheries giants Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. and Maruha Nichiro Corp., which had whaled in the Antarctic Ocean decades ago, are not considering resuming whaling after Japan withdraws from the IWC.

Japan's whaling, which began in Taiji in the western Japan prefecture of Wakayama, has an over 400-year history and is part of Japanese culture.

"Japan couldn't protect Japanese fishermen's livelihoods unless it withdrew the IWC. I appreciate the government's decision," Taiji Mayor Kazutaka Sangen commented. "However, I guess whaling will be transformed from commercial whaling into one rooted in regional communities."

-- Japan's withdrawal from IWC casts shadow over int'l cooperation

Anti-whaling countries and organizations criticized Japan's decision.

Australian Environment Minister Melissa Price said the country will continue to oppose all forms of whaling including commercial and research whaling, and urged Japan to return to the IWC. New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters expressed hope that Japan will completely discontinue whaling to protect the ocean ecosystem.

Japan's IWC pullout means it will give up whaling in the Antarctic Ocean, rich in whale resources, in favor of hunts in its territorial waters and EEZ. Tokyo is emphasizing that Japan boldly compromised with anti-whaling countries by abandoning its cherished goal of resuming whaling in Antarctic waters. Some in Australia and New Zealand welcomed the move. However, it remains to be seen whether Japan's position can win understanding from the international community.

-- Mixed reactions in whaling hubs

Communities in once prosperous whaling hubs had mixed reactions to the government's decision to leave the IWC.

"Thirty years have passed since people in my grandfather's generation began to call for resumption of whaling. Even though we had to withdraw from the IWC, I'm glad the move is a step forward," said Nobuyuki Ito, president of Ayukawa Hogei K.K., a whaling company in Ishinomaki in the northeastern Japan prefecture of Miyagi.

The city's Ayukawa district declined after the IWC moratorium was imposed. The area was also devastated by tsunami generated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

"The decision was timely as it came as the disaster recovery of the area is progressing. We'd like to resume whaling while consulting the Fisheries Agency and others," Ito said.

Yoshinori Shoji, president of Gaibo Hogei whaling company in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture in eastern Japan, told the Mainichi of the IWC withdrawal, "Concerns remain. I'd like the government to properly manage resources so that Japan will not invite criticism from countries that are opposed to whaling."

(Japanese original by Akiko Kato, Business News Department, Aya Takeuchi, Jakarta Bureau, Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau, Hiromi Nagano, Los Angeles Bureau, Akiko Horiyama, Seoul Bureau, Nobuyuki Hyakutake, Ishinomaki Local Bureau, Atsuko Motohashi, Sendai Bureau, and Fumitaka Nakajima, Tateyama Local Bureau)

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