How does Japan get away with 'horrific' whale hunting?

Animal rights activists insist that the international community could have done more to stop what they consider to be thinly disguised commercial whaling. Japan says it is for research purposes. Julian Ryall reports.

Japan has said it is willing to "fully comply" with an international fact-finding team dispatched by the member states of the Washington Convention to determine whether Japan's research whaling program violates the treaty.

Nature and Environment | 30.08.2017

The Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) opened its annual five-day meeting in Geneva on Monday, with Japan's hunting of endangered sei whales one of the main topics on the agenda. Members agreed to send a team to Japan to look into the annual cull of 134 sei whales in the North Pacific in the coming months and delay a decision on whether the hunt is actually thinly disguised as commercial whaling, which many other nations and conservation groups claim is the case.

Read more: Sea Shepherd quits campaign - giving Japan's whalers free rein?

USA Sea Shepherds Aktivisten protestieren gegen Kampf gegen japanische Walfänger

Environmentalists protesting against Japan's whaling program

Endangered species

CITES recognizes sei whales as an endangered species, but Japan uses a loophole in international regulations that permits it to harpoon a quota in order to carry out research. If the fact-finding mission determines that the whaling is not producing data or that it is commercial in nature, then the CITES Standing Committee can recommend that Japan halt its hunt.

Nature and Environment | 31.03.2017

Representatives of the United States and New Zealand used the meeting to express concern about Japan's whaling, claiming that Tokyo is failing to release adequate information on its program, although Japan disputes that claim.

"We explained to the meeting about our catch of sei whales for scientific research rather than for commercial purposes," said Yuki Morita, a spokesman for the Whaling Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Tokyo.

"We emphasized that all parts of the whale are used and that the meat that is later sold on the market is to raise funds to cover the costs of the next year's research," he told DW.

"CITES has asked us to provide more information and we are happy to fully comply with that request," Morita added.

Environmental groups, however, have expressed anger at CITES failure to act more decisively in the campaign against whaling.

Sue Fisher, of the Animal Welfare Institute, said, "Japan has already had more than a year to demonstrate that it is in compliance with the treaty. The fact is that it cannot; its use of sei whale meat is clearly commercial."

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"Now, another 134 whales will die for Japan to be given 'due process,'" she said.

The institute's web page quoted Mark Simmonds of Humane Society International as saying, "CITES failed to stand up for its rules."

"Japan's domestic market sales of thousands of tons of sei whale products each year are not for the purpose of science, and the whale products sold are not the by-products of research," Simmonds said. "Securing whale meat is the primary motivation for the hunt and it is brought into Japan to maintain and further build a commercial market."

Read more: Japan kills 333 whales in annual Antarctic hunt, flouting international laws

'Sham will continue'

"With today's decision, this sham will continue," he added.

Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, echoed the anger over Tokyo's continued defiance of the international community's concerns about its whaling industry.

"There has already been a ruling by the International Court of Justice that Japan's whaling is illegal and Tokyo has openly stated in the past that it wants to resume commercial whaling," he told DW. "Everything we are seeing is preparations for that and I believe it is time that the rest of the world stopped pussy-footing around Japan and sorted this out."

Hansen believes that most people in Japan have little understanding of the cruelty involved in hunting whales, or how much it costs taxpayers.

"People do not know that whale meat is stockpiled because they cannot sell it because not enough people want to eat it," he said. "Japanese people do not know that whale meat has high levels of mercury and is therefore dangerous to eat, and they are not told that the industry is heavily subsidized by the government to allow it to continue."

"Why are taxpayers' funds being used to fund an insane mission on the other side of the world for a product that no-one wants?" he asked.

Hansen is also disappointed at the failure of the Australian government to halt Japanese whaling ships operating in a declared whale sanctuary in the Southern Ocean and this week released footage taken by Australian Customs officials in 2008 of the Japanese whalers' operations.

Read more: Australia protests as Japan resumes whaling 

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Japan ordered to end "scientific" whaling

Footage 'suppressed'

The Australian government "suppressed" the footage, Hansen said, on the grounds that "the images of this horrific slaughter would harm diplomatic relationships with Japan."

Working with other environmental groups, Sea Shepherd was only able to get access to the footage through a laborious freedom of information request.

"This footage shows the bloody brutality, cruelty and senseless killing of such beautiful, intelligent and majestic animals," Hansen said. "These whales are hunted down, before being hit with an explosive harpoon that sends shrapnel through their bodies, while prongs come out so that the whale cannot escape."

The fortunate ones die in around three minutes, he said, although Sea Shepherd activists have seen a whale take 22 minutes to die.

"Sea Shepherd is asking the Australian government to do all it can to end whaling, by not only sending a ship to the Antarctic but to also take Japan to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, where Japan can be challenged over its activities as Japan is not meeting its international obligations to sustainably protect whales," he added. "The tribunal has a system of mandatory dispute settlement, one that's very difficult to opt out of and there is very little Japan could do about it."

Harpoons ready

As of Friday (10.04.2015), four Japanese whaling ships are on the way into the Pacific. By the end of this May, they may have killed up to 51 minke whales. Officials argue that the hunt is necessary for research into the effects whales have on coastal fishing. Just one year ago, the International Court of Justice in The Hague banned Japan from continuing its whale hunt.

Ban ignored

The hunt for the endangered sea mammals has been outlawed since 1986 - but Norwegian, Icelandic and Japanese companies continue to hunt whales. The Japanese, in particular, argue that their whaling program is conducted for purposes of scientific research. But Japan is also hunting ever less and less: this past January, two whaling ships set out to counting whale and take tissue samples.

Japan v. whales

For 20 years, Australia tried unsuccessfully to persuade Japan to stop its whaling program through diplomatic channels - and finally took the country to court in 2013. In Late March 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague ruled Japan's whaling program is not for scientific purposes, and ordered a temporary stay.

Endangered species

Whale stocks have stabilized since the ban was implemented 27 years ago. However, more than half of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable. This includes blue whales, fin whales, sei whales, southern right whales and sperm whales. Whales can grow to be 33 meters (108 feet) long and weigh 190 tonnes (209 tons) - making them the largest animals on Earth.

Japanese whalers

Hunted down in the name of science, the whales' meat is later sold to stores and specialty restaurants. The Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research was founded exactly one year after the 1986 moratorium issued by the International Whaling Commission.

A Japanese tradition

Whale meat has long been on dinner plates in Japan. Especially after World War II, the population of the island nation depended on whale meat. Schools and canteens cherished it because it was cheaper than beef. But times have changed - and now whale meat accounts for only 1 percent of meat consumed in Japan.

Dog food

You can find up to 7,000 tons of whale meat stored in Japanese warehouses. Due to a lack of buyers, a Japanese firm had fin whale meat processed into dog food. However, protests by international animal rights groups made the company announce that it was discontinuing production of the dog treats.

Act of defiance

Despite all this, many Japanese still support whale hunting and decry the actions of environmental campaigners like Greenpeace as eco-terrorism. Japan's government has refused to give in to international pressure, and has been subsidizing whaling programs since 1988 with around 800 million yen (6.3 million euros) a year.

Japan not alone

Iceland and Norway also have whaling programs in defiance of the ban. Both countries lodged objections to the moratorium, and don't feel the need to abide by it.

Legal whaling

Indigenous people such as the Chukchi in Russia or the Inuit in Canada are officially entitled to hunt whales as long as they don't do it for commercial purposes. For these people, whaling is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The sea mammals provide them with meat, oil and bones. Every part of the animal is used.

Sea Shepherd

Environmental groups played an important role in issuance of the whaling ban. For decades, they led spectacular campaigns to draw the world's attention to the issue of whale hunting. The organization Sea Shepherd is known for its controversial and aggressive approach to protecting the giants of the sea.

Watching instead of hunting

Many countries that used to have whaling programs are now in the business of whale watching. Some of the whale watchers in Japan and Norway are former whale hunters who now share their knowledge with tourists. Also in Japan, an ever-increasing number of citizens would rather see these animals in the wild than on their dinner plates.