The tsunami may have overturned the politics of Japan’s controversial whaling industryby Philip Hoare / June 22, 2011 / Leave a comment
There are an estimated 1.5m minke whales left worldwide. This species makes up most of Japan’s annual catch
In 1927 the Illustrated London News printed an article with a remarkable headline—not least because it seemed to militate against what was at the time one of Britain’s great expanding industries. “Antarctic Whales In Peril of Extermination,” it read. The author John Bryant, a ship’s doctor, noted: “Probably no industry has lost so much of its personal romance, yet retained so much of its fascination, as whaling. Gone are the supermen who did battle with Leviathan from an open boat, and cracked jests whilst plunging the lance time and time again into the fleeing monster in attempts to find its ‘life,’ at the uttermost peril of their own and the lives of their boat’s crew.”
In a subsequent issue Robert Donald, a newspaper editor and politician, criticised the Discovery Committee, the government body that assisted British whaling. Donald argued that “the policy which the authorities have adopted may lead to the extermination of whales in the Antarctic as in the North Polar Seas.” Almost a century later, and the same controversy is still being played out in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean.
But the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on 11th March has complicated matters. Now a great unknown hangs over the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in July, in Jersey. How will disaster affect Japan’s argument that it should be allowed to continue whaling?
Whales have been hunted commercially since the 17th century, mainly for meat and oil. Amid concerns that some species were being pursued to extinction, the IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. But whaling could continue for scientific purposes—allowing the Japanese to circumvent the ban. Indigenous groups, who hunt whales for subsistence, were also permitted to carry on. Meanwhile, Norway and Iceland lodged objections to the ban and continued commercial whaling. More than 33,000 whales have died as a direct result of hunting since the start of the ban, mostly killed by those three countries. One result is a bad-tempered standoff between whaling countries and the anti-whaling lobby, whose most extreme expression is Sea Shepherd, a piratical organisation captained by a modern anti-Ahab, Paul Watson.
In February, the Japanese fisheries minister announced that Sea Shepherd’s actions, which include boarding whaling ships, forced the curtailment of the 2010-11 season on…