The devil and the deep blue sea – Japanese whaling brings surprising conservation benefits

Japan has faced a great deal of criticism for its decision to leave the International Whaling Commission and once again engage in commercial whale hunts. But what does the country’s attempt to revive a dying industry really mean for conservation efforts?

The devil and the deep blue sea – Japanese whaling brings surprising conservation benefits
Despite a fall in demand, a survey conducted by Rikkyo University researcher Junko Sakuma found that 70 percent of Japanese people support whaling, as it is a point of national pride 

Humans share certain behaviours with whales – most notably what is referred to as ‘culture’. According to The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, a book by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, culture is “behaviour or information with two primary attributes – it is socially learned and it is shared within a social community”. Whales also have sophisticated means of communication, using an assortment of noises and ‘songs’ to interact with one another. These songs can vary considerably across the globe, akin to the variety of languages we speak as humans.

It is this growing understanding of just how emotionally intelligent whales are that makes commercial whaling such a sore subject. But while it’s an issue that sparks rage in many, others defend it with the utmost ardour. Among the few nations that persist in the hunting and consumption of whales is Japan. For years, the island nation utilised a loophole in the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC’s) 1986 moratorium that permits countries to hunt whales for scientific purposes. According to the IWC’s website, Japan caught a total of 333 pelagic whales during the 2017/18 hunting season to conduct such research (see Fig 1).

It has widely been suggested, though, that this was simply a guise for Japan to continue its tradition of eating whale meat without drawing the ire of the international community. The facade finally faded away in late 2018, when news broke that Japan would be leaving the IWC – in July 2019, for the first time in 31 years, the country reinstated commercial whaling in its waters.

A market at sea
Advocates say that hunting and eating whale is an important part of Japanese culture. Indeed, coastal communities have partaken in the tradition for centuries. Nonetheless, it was not until the Second World War that the consumption of whale meat became widespread in the country – at that time, food was scarce and whale meat offered an alternative source of protein for many. By the mid-1960s, however, whale meat had once again become a niche product.

According to data from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the country’s annual consumption of whale meat has fallen from a peak of around 223,000 tons in 1962 to closer to 5,000 tons in recent years (see Fig 2). Hideki Moronuki, the director for international negotiations at the ministry, told World Finance that reduced consumption is not a result of a fall in demand, but rather a drop in supply: “[The] main cause of the decline [in] supply was [the] introduction of a series of regulations by [the] IWC, such as [the] prohibition of [catching] certain whale species i.e. blue, humpback and fin whales. In addition, the supply was drastically reduced due to the introduction of [the] so-called ‘commercial whaling moratorium’ in the late 80s. Since then, only by-products of whale meat derived from scientific research [have been] available.”

Moronuki insists that the consumption of whale meat in Japan has remained stable despite these obstacles: “No sign of decline [in consumption] is detected, although the quantity itself is very low [compared with] the peak period in the 60s.” But according to Rikkyo University researcher Junko Sakuma, this simply isn’t the case, as a considerable surplus of whale meat sits idle in frozen storage units across the country. In fact, earlier this year, Sakuma told Public Radio International that this stockpile amounted to some 3,700 tons.

As labour costs rise and local tastes change, the Japanese Government’s support of the whaling sector increasingly seems like a bad investment

Naturally, the industry has made attempts to increase demand, predominately through nostalgic marketing campaigns aimed at older citizens – whale meat being a familiar taste from their childhood. Success has been limited, though, with whale meat being increasingly unpopular among younger generations. “Most young Japanese prefer hamburgers,” Captain Paul Watson, Founder and CEO of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, told World Finance. “In fact, there are more vegans and vegetarians in Japan than there are people eating whale meat.”

Excess supply has caused prices to fall significantly – so much so that the meat started to appear on school lunch menus in 2007. That same year, The Telegraph discovered ‘whale bacon’ was being offered as a bar snack in Tokyo for as little as £3 ($3.70). Northern Japanese fast food chain Lucky Pierrot, meanwhile, began selling whale burgers for $3.50 as early as 2005. At the time, the company said it was hoping to increase the meat’s popularity among locals. There have even been reports of it being used as pet food.

Despite the fall in demand, a survey conducted by Sakuma found that 70 percent of Japanese people support whaling, as it is a point of national pride. “Some people who don’t eat the meat support the industry for nationalistic reasons,” Watson explained. This sentiment is clearly expressed on the Japan Whaling Association’s website, which seeks to justify the country’s whaling practices on its question and answer page: “Asking Japan to abandon [its whaling culture] would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers, and the English being asked to go without fish and chips.”

Moronuki agrees with the website’s outlook: “It should be the people living in [a] respective region [who] decide what they eat in accordance with… availability… and in accordance with their culture, history, religion and so on. If you force others not to eat what you do not eat – since you do not have such [a] background – it is regarded as… cultural imperialism.”

In troubled waters
When asked why Japan had resumed commercial whaling, Moronuki told World Finance: “Japan is surrounded by the ocean and therefore has been dependent on marine living resources as one of [its primary] food sources [since] ancient [times]. We believe that marine living resources, including cetaceans, should be properly used in [a] sustainable manner based on science.”

The problem, however, is that the industry itself is unsustainable, relying heavily on government subsidies. According to The Washington Post, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has allocated $463m to support the industry this year alone. “Commercial whaling in Japan exists only by virtue of massive government subsidies,” Watson explained. “Without these subsidies, the industry would die. The demand for whale meat in Japan is about one percent. There are thousands of tons in cold storage they can’t sell – it’s a glorified welfare project.”

And while the industry only employs around 300 people, these positions are often hard to fill thanks to Japan’s tight labour market – amid increasingly problematic labour shortages, the whaling industry has to compete with the higher wages offered by more lucrative subdivisions of the seafood market, such as crabbing and tuna fishing. As labour costs rise and local tastes change, the government’s costly support of the sector increasingly seems like a bad investment.

But Moronuki believes it isn’t so black and white: “You have to note that some jobs/activities are not always matters of lucrativeness. In many cases, they are connected to livelihood, culture, tradition, identity, etc. Japan does not have only big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, but hundreds of small communities, some of which [are situated] in remote areas, including islands. Some of them have been dependent on whaling and its related activities (processing, retail, restaurants and so on) [for centuries].”

Good whale hunting
It may surprise many to learn that, in spite of the surrounding controversy, Japan’s reinstatement of commercial whaling has brought some conservation benefits. “Japan never stopped commercial whaling,” Watson told World Finance. “[It] simply changed the name in 1987 to ‘scientific research whaling’ and [it is] now changing the name back.

“[But] the great news is that they have ceased killing whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and they have withdrawn from the IWC, which will now allow the IWC to implement conservation measures without being blocked by Japan. For the first time in history, there is no pelagic whaling and all commercial whaling today is restricted to the territorial waters of Japan, Norway and Denmark.”

With Japan now limiting its whaling activities to its own waters – moving away from the North Pacific and Antarctic – far fewer whales will be killed. “Japan has found a way out of high seas whaling,” Patrick Ramage, Director of Marine Conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said at a press conference on the topic earlier this year. “And they’ve done it in a way that is elegantly Japanese – it is a win-win solution that results in a better situation for whales, a better situation for Japan [and] a better situation for international marine conservation efforts.”

Many have been quick to express concern or criticise Japan, but as Ramage explained during the conference, the resumption of commercial whaling enables the country to preserve its cultural custom – which is important for both public perception and politicians – while also reducing its whaling activities in what he calls a “face-saving way out”. He added: “In terms of the body count, whales are going to do significantly better under the new commercial whaling programme.”

With Japan now limiting its whaling activities to its own waters, far fewer whales will be killed

Swimming against the tide
While the move is surprisingly positive, Japan is not alone in its perplexing attempts to revive this waning market: Norway also has a rich whaling tradition that dates back centuries, and is one of three countries (the other being Iceland) that still support the practice today. In fact, Norway revealed last year that it would expand its annual quota by 28 percent in a bid to prop up its whaling industry.

“The Norwegian Government has spent millions on PR and lobbying campaigns over the years to keep the whaling industry alive,” Fabienne McLellan, Director of International Relations at OceanCare, explained to World Finance. “But despite government subsidies and marketing campaigns over the past 33 years, domestic demand for whale meat is declining within Norway. According to a survey, many Norwegians eat whale meat only on special occasions and fewer than five percent of Norwegians eat whale meat regularly – and, if so, it is eaten by [the] older generation. So whale meat is not an everyday meal for the average Norwegian.”

To revive the industry, the government has been trying to reach out to students and young people by presenting whale meat as ‘hipster’ food. “Previously, you might have only come across whale meat in the form of a rather unappetising chunk of dark meat hidden in the back of a supermarket freezer counter, or in a restaurant frequented by locals prepared in [the] traditional way, as a ‘steak’ served with potatoes,” McLellan told World Finance.

“However, now we are starting to see the reappearance of whale meat in various… forms, such as whale meat burgers and whale meat skewers accompanied by exotic condiments and sourdough bread, [and] sold in trendy restaurants, [at] music festivals or street market stalls.” Tourists are another segment the government is targeting, with whale meat being offered aboard cruise ships and in dozens of popular restaurants alongside cocktails and craft beers.

With Japan now limiting its whaling activities to its own waters, far fewer whales will be killed

Still, a lack of demand is causing suppliers to turn to unconventional methods to rid themselves of their product: according to McLellan, Myklebust Hvalprodukter, one of Norway’s largest whale meat processors and exporters, donated around 60 tons of the meat to the poor in January 2017. “In the same month, we… learned that, in an apparent effort to boost sales, the supermarket chain SPAR [now] offers whale meat as a sale product,” she added. Even more controversially, McLellan said that more than 113 tons of whale meat – the equivalent of around 20 minke whales – was used as feed for foxes and minks on fur farms in 2014.

In addition to actively promoting whale meat consumption, the Norwegian authorities finance projects aimed at boosting domestic sales, such as the development of cosmetic products, dietary supplements and alternative pharmaceuticals. Myklebust Hvalprodukter, for example, has introduced a range of skincare products derived from whale oil, including a hand cream that can purportedly help treat chronic psoriasis. As explained by Sandra Altherr, Kate O’Connell, Sue Fisher and Sigrid Lüber in the 2016 report Frozen in Time: How Modern Norway Clings to its Whaling Past, the company also sells whale oil ‘health capsules’ that it claims can “increase energy levels and endurance”.

Going to such measures to stop the inevitable seems counterproductive, but as with Japan, there is a cultural component to preserving Norway’s dying whale meat industry. As McLellan noted: “The gap between increasing quotas and [a fall in] actual catches, as well as diminishing demand for whale products, is a clear indication that the Norwegian whaling industry is only kept alive for political reasons.”

End of the line
As evidenced by both Norway and Japan, the demand for whale meat continues to decline. People nowadays are more inclined to opt for a vegetarian option over a meat shrouded in moral ambiguity.

“[The] eating of whale meat is highly unethical because the animal dies an agonising death,” McLellan said. “The whales are killed with explosive harpoons that are meant to detonate in the whale’s brain, which should kill the whales instantly. However, in many instances, something goes wrong and it takes much longer for a whale to die – sometimes more than 14 minutes… and, in one case, even several horrendous hours. There is no humane way to kill a whale.”

There are health concerns to consider, too: according to the Environmental Investigation Agency’s 2015 report Dangerous Diet: Japan Fails in its Duty of Care Over Toxic Whale and Dolphin Meat, 56 percent of the cetacean products it tested contained levels of mercury that exceeded Japan’s legal limit. As stated on the World Health Organisation’s website, high levels of mercury can have “toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes”.

Whales also play an important role in the health of the environment, supporting the ocean’s delicate ecosystem by helping to regulate the flow of food and ensuring that certain species do not overpopulate the seas. And while whaling advocates argue that the hunting of minke, sei and Bryde’s whales, in particular, is sustainable due to recovered populations, there is no way of fully comprehending the impact that killing these mammals will have.

As explained by the 2014 report Ecological Role of Common Minke Whales in the South-Western East Sea (Sea of Japan) Ecosystem During the Post-commercial Whaling Moratorium Period: “Common minke whales are top predators that feed on commercially important fishes, especially small pelagic fishes such as Japanese anchovy, in addition to small crustaceans such as euphausiids, and thus play an important top-down ecological role in the marine ecosystem.”

It’s also important to note that whale faeces helps stimulate the growth of phytoplankton – photosynthetic organisms that absorb carbon dioxide. The very presence of phytoplankton helps to offset the carbon in our atmosphere and provide a cleaner breathing environment for all animals, making whales a vital contributor to the health of our planet.

But in spite of these facts, whaling persists. Tradition and culture are a crucial part of each and every society; even when we don’t agree with certain customs, there is still a strong inclination to stand by them, for fear of losing even a thread of the complex matrix that forms national identity. Telling a country that it cannot act in a particular manner is a slippery slope, and is likely to draw a fierce response.

But one cannot argue with the economics: tastes are swiftly changing, and the appetite for whale meat in particular is rapidly declining for a host of reasons. It seems almost certain that, despite initiatives to turn things around, this trajectory will continue. For commercial whaling nations, it is up to the relevant authorities and the citizens themselves to put an end to the practice once and for all – while international pressure invariably helps, it’s not a decision that can be made from the outside.

In the case of Japan, its recent move to reintroduce commercial whaling, as controversial as it may seem at first glance, is a good thing – it means that fewer whales will be killed and marks an important end to pelagic hunting. While it’s by no means the perfect solution, it is a step in the right direction. The next will be the natural phasing out of whale meat from the market. Given the cost of government subsidies and waning demand, this seems inevitable, but it’s a day that can’t come soon enough.