Tokyo Notes

Why Did Japan Suspend Whaling?

Tokyo claims safety concerns over Sea Shepherd attacks prompted it to halt whaling. But is it about economics?

Persistence seems to have paid off. The militant Sea Shepherd environmental group has finally harpooned its prey, having forced the Japanese whaling mission to suspend its annual forage in the southern seas.

But is this real reason the government has called a temporary moratorium on whaling?

A fisheries agency official said Wednesday the Nisshin Maru, the fleet’s mother ship, has refrained from hunting since February 10 to ensure the crew’s safety from the environmentalists’ guerrilla attacks. Reports say the government has curtailed the season (due to end mid-March), but the official said nothing had been decided yet.

Sea Shepherd skipper Paul Watson reportedly welcomed the news, saying that if reports are true, ‘it demonstrates our tactics, our strategies have been successful.’

The activists are a pirate-esque crew on what they call ‘Operation No Compromise.’ They have fired flares, thrown paint, put themselves between harpoons and cetaceans and, as this video shows, sailed dangerously close to the Nisshin Maru’s bow in attempts to obstruct the mission. Last season, a Sea Shepherd vessel was sunk after a collision with a whaling ship.

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But with similar high seas skirmishes having occurred in previous years, perhaps other concerns have anchored the ‘research’ mission?

International pressure could be a factor. Ties with prominent anti-whaling nations such as Australia and New Zealand have frayed, but demands to stop whaling by these (with respect) relatively minor nations in international affairs are unlikely to have twisted Japan’s arm painfully enough. Even Australia’s action in the International Court of Justice to make Japan end its annual culls is unlikely to have swayed Tokyo, especially given the farm ministry’s insistence that they’re legal, scientific hunts permitted by the International Whaling Commission.

One other factor could be that a sizeable proportion of ruling Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers are reportedly in favour of Japan stepping into line with the international community on the whaling issue.

But perhaps it just boils down to simple economics. While the mission has a unilaterally assigned quota of about 1000 whales a season, reports suggest that despite having passed the halfway mark, less than 100 have been harpooned. Perhaps this is due to Sea Shepherd’s success in diverting the fleet away from hunting grounds. But it's more likely due to the Japanese public increasingly losing their penchant for this tough, chewy meat—a fact borne out by the ‘massive stockpiles of whale meat’ claimed by Greenpeace. And with the economy perceived to be underperforming, the public may also be tiring of the expense of sending vessels out to catch mammals they don’t want to eat (as well as the alleged buying of votes from other IWC members).

Rightists will probably cry that Japan has fallen victim to bashing by uppity Westerners once more, and the government will come under strong pressure to act in Japan’s 'interests'.

But rather than pertinaciously standing up to outside forces, it would probably be better to pull the plug on this grand façade—and save some money in the process.