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Is Japan's whaling industry going under?

Julian Ryall
July 28, 2022

Japan's whaling industry is struggling to stay afloat as government subsidies dwindle and consumers are less interested in what used to be a staple food on Japanese dinner tables.

The loading ramp of a whaling ship
The Nisshin Maru Japanese whaling fleet's factory shipImage: Jiri Rezac/dpa/picture alliance

Japan's whaling industry is on the brink of collapse as fewer people consume whale meat and the government subsidies that have kept it afloat are slowly phased out. 

Although the industry is pushing ahead with plans to build a massive new whaling ship, cut costs and encourage more people to consume whale meat, environmental campaigners say these efforts are are just delaying the inevitable.  

Mariko Abe, from the Nature Conservation Society of Japan, told DW that whale used to be a "traditional food" for millions of Japanese, but "that time has gone and young people just do not look at it that way any more."

"Most of them have never eaten whale and are not interested in trying it. It makes absolutely no economic sense to build this new whaling ship and to set out to catch more whales because no one wants to buy it," she said.

What is the status of Japan's whaling industry?

Japan's whaling fleet is operated by Kyodo Senpaku Co., the sole offshore whaling company in Japan. It has an annual quota of 52 Minke whales, 150 Bryde's and 25 Sei whales within the nation's exclusive economic zone.

Kyodo Senpaku employs 170 people. It operates four ships, consisting of three hunting vessels, and the world's only whaling factory ship, Nisshin Maru, which processes the carcasses.

In 2019, Japan pulled out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) after the body rejected industry claims that there are sufficient whales in the world's oceans to justify a return to commercial whaling, and to avoid criticism for whaling in the Southern Ocean. 

For decades, Japanese whalers drew international criticism for exploiting a loophole in the IWC's regulations that permitted "scientific whaling" on the high seas.

Japan's "research" was carried out by the "Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR)," which contracted Kyodo Senpaku. 

Japan harpooned hundreds of whales across the Pacific every year on the pretext of studying their migration routes and to obtain data on whale numbers, their health and breeding patterns.

Three dead Minke whales seen in 2013
Minke whales hunted and processed on the Nisshin Maru in the Southern Ocean in 2013Image: Tim Watters/Sea Shepherd Australia/dpa/picture alliance

According to the nonprofit organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation USA, an article in the treaty allows the whales "taken under these permits" to be "processed" and for the government to determine the next step. 

In Japan's case, the whale meat is processed and transferred by the government for sale on the market. 

After leaving the IWC, Japanese whalers were permitted by the government to resume commercial fishing in the waters off the coast of Japan.

State financial support for the industry is dwindling. 

Industry depends on state support

For decades, the Japanese government has provided the industry with annual subsidies for "scientific whaling," with Fishery Agency figures in 2019 coming to approximately 5.1 billion yen.

Whaling subsidies were cut to 1.3 billion yen for the first two years after Japan left the IWC in 2019.

Konomu Kubo, a spokesman for Kyodo Senpaku, told DW that, instead of a subsidy, the government now provides a loan of 340 million yen (€2.5 million/$2.53 million), which must be repaid. 

support for the company was converted from a subsidy to a loan of 340 million yen, which must be "repaid after the balance goes into the black."

If state support is completely phased out, the financial conditions for Japan's whaling industry would appear unsustainable. 

The break-even price for 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of whale meat is 1,200 yen. However, the 2,000 tons brought to market in 2020 was sold at an average of just 1,100 yen, according to the Fisheries Agency.

"Low profits from the sale of whale meat are not sufficient to cover the 'scientific' whaling," Whale and Dolphin Conservation USA said in a report.

"Even the Japan Fisheries Agency has now abandoned any pretense that commercial whaling can be profitable," Patrick Ramage, the senior director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told DW.

Kyodo Senpaku has announced plans to move ahead with "modernization," including the construction of a new processing ship, with a price tag of 6 billion yen. Work is scheduled to start next year and be completed in March 2024.

"Over the past 60 years, whale meat consumption in Japan has dropped by 99%," Ramage said. "Spending billions of yen to build a new boat will not revive an industry that is dead in the water." 

Nisshin Maru in Shimonoseki City
The Nisshin Maru embarks on a commercial whaling expedition in 2019Image: Hiroaki Ono/AP Photo/picture alliance

The price tag of 6 billion yen should be offset if the government permits an expanded quota of whales and the Japanese public can be convinced to eat more whale meat, Kubo said. 

"In terms of taste and depending on the way it is cooked, I think whale meat is nice food that is by no means inferior to beef and tuna," he said. "We believe that implementing various promotional activities will increase the value of whale meat and lead to increased sales."    

A 'dying industry'

"What we are witnessing is a dying industry sinking of its own weight," Ramage said. 

Ramage said Japan's withdrawal from high-seas whaling was a "death blow," and an acknowledgment that "even massive government subsidies could not keep the industry afloat."

"Thirty-six months later, even the most ardent advocates for commercial whaling see it as a charity case, completely reliant on taxpayers' support. Consumer demand continues to plummet while costs continue to soar," he said.

A whale meat dish is displayed in Chuo Ward, Tokyo
Whale meat dishes are proving less popular Image: Ryoichiro Kida/AP Photo/picture alliance

Ramage said there were alternatives for communities that previously survived on slaughtering whales.

"As commercial whaling moves through the stages of death, coastal communities from Hokkaido to Okinawa are migrating to whale and dolphin watching, a profitable ecotourism activity in Japan and worldwide," Ramage said.

"The case is increasingly clear," he said. "Saving the whales costs less and delivers more than saving the whaling."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn