A whale hunt without harpoons

Japanese whalers have become notorious for capturing and killing whales in the waters of the Antarctic, then selling their meat at a high price. Such expeditions were done under the pretext of scientific research, but the hunts have now been deemed illegal under international law. The whalers have once again set off on their annual Antarctic expedition, but with one big difference: this year the whales will stay alive. Susanne Steffen reports from Tokyo.

"Japan Factory Ship Nisshin Maru Whaling Mother and Calf” by Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia.

Japan Factory Ship Nisshin Maru Whaling Mother and Calf. (Photo credit: Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia)

A Japanese whaling fleet set out last week on its annual ‘scientific mission’ to the Antarctic, but the vessels look a bit different this year: The whalers have left their harpoons behind. This year’s hunt will be non-lethal, following a ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last year that the whalers had been illegally killing the whales for commercial purposes. And yet the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd is still not satisfied.

According to Japan’s Fisheries Agency, three boats from the Institute for Cetacean Research will conduct non-lethal research on whales through to the end of March – a mission that includes whale watching but also removing skin samples of the marine mammals. As this year’s mission doesn’t intend to kill any whales, the ships have not been equipped with harpoons, explained the agency.

Animal activists: robbers are still robbers

The anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd nonetheless quickly condemned the Japanese Antarctic mission. “Japan’s non-lethal program is the equivalent of robbers casing a bank in preparation for a robbery; the heist that robs the world of its most majestic creatures,” said Sea Shepherd captain Peter Hammerstedt. His group is particularly angry because the government of Japan announced back in November that it plans to resume killing the whales in 2015/2016: around 330 mink whales may be killed, down two-thirds from fishing targets in recent years.

Research is only an excuse

Sea Shepherd is accusing Tokyo of not complying with the ICJ’s ruling, handed down in March of last year, which decided that the Japanese whaling programme was unscientific, and therefore illegal. Australia had brought the case against Japan.

The ICJ ruled that Japan was abusing an exception granted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) that allows killing of whales for scientific purposes, finding instead that Japan had been carrying out a commercial hunt under the guise of science. Japan had always maintained, however, that it was necessary to kill the whales to allow scientists to examine their stomach contents and determine how much the predators were affected by coastal fisheries. However, Tokyo never made secret of the fact that the meat was then sold for consumption after the scientific examinations were completed – and at a very high price.

Quotas not filled

Japanese whalers have fallen considerably short of their catch quotas in recent years, in large part as a result of direct actions by the Sea Shepherd that have disrupted the fleet’s work and forced the boats to return early. According to official figures, whalers caught only 251 mink whales instead of the planned 935 during last year’s hunting season, which was completed before the UN’s highest court handed down its ruling. The Sea Shepherd has not announced any plans to take action against this year’s ‘harpoon-free’ Japanese whalers.

In addition to the lower quota, another feature in Japan’s revised fishing programme is that it has restricted the research period to 12 years. Previous programmes were open-ended – another point that the ICJ had singled out for criticism.

In the meantime, Japan’s government spokesman announced that Tokyo denied entry to a total of 11 Sea Shepherd members last year, but the government has yet to publish details about this. Observers suspect that the activists were likely seeking entry to protest the hunt of dolphins and small whales off the coast of Japan.


Photo credit: Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 au via Wikimedia Commons.

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