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A whale of a lie?

Julian Ryall, TokyoFebruary 5, 2013

A report released in Tokyo by the International Fund for Animal Welfare shatters the justifications used by the Japanese government and the whaling industry to continue the slaughter of whales.

Minke whales waiting to be flensed on the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru during a whale hunt in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary
Image: IFAW

Of all the statistics, culled from official sources, that are cited in the International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) study "The Economics of Japanese Whaling," Dr. Ralf Sonntag, director of the IFAW's operations in Germany, says the one that shocked him the most was the sheer amount of taxpayers' money that had been sunk into an industry for a product that so few people want to buy.

"That was perhaps the most surprising thing for me," said Sonntag, who was in Tokyo for the launch of the study. "It's a figure around 400 million US dollars over the last 25 years and that's a lot of money.

"Really, that sort of money could have been spent in a far better way than on supporting an industry that could not survive without government backing."

Thanks to the support of the conservative members of the Japanese government and bureaucrats within the Japan Fisheries Agency, the whaling fleet is presently exploiting a loophole within the rules of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to operate in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

Whale meat for sale in a Japanese market. (Copyright: IFAW/N. Funahashi)
Markets have struggled to sell whale meatImage: IFAW/N. Funahashi

'Research whaling'

Established by the IWC in 1994, the sanctuary is a swathe of the Antarctic Ocean that covers 50 million square km where all commercial whaling is banned. Japan gets around the ban by claiming that the whales it harpoons in these waters are part of its research program and that only the by-product of that research is then sold to consumers in Japan.

Sonntag, 54, believes that is a cynical manipulation of the wording of the IWC's resolution and is in Tokyo to raise awareness of the issue, along with the new report, among the diplomatic corps here.

"The German public is very much against whaling and most of the people that I talk to are aware that the claim Japan makes about scientific whaling is a sham," he told DW. "The German parliament has voted unanimously against whaling and has a strong commitment to making those countries that still do this - Japan, Iceland and Norway - stop.

"The important thing is to trigger a dialogue within Japanese society on this issue and I think it's very important that people here consider it critically," he says. "The report shows us that whaling is highly subsidized for a product that is completely unnecessary because people are indifferent to it."

The research, carried out by Japanese companies for the IFAW, paints a very different picture to the rosy image that whaling authorities manage to put on the same figures.

Japan's whaling fleet, for example, is financially supported to the tune of around Y782 million (nearly 8.5 million US dollars) a year, yet the Institute of Cetacean Research still operates at an annual loss.

Consumption declining

At the same time, consumption of whale meat among the Japanese public today is around 1 percent of its peak, in the early 1960s, and stockpiles of unsold whale meat have increased to nearly 5,000 tons - more than four times more than 15 years ago.

A mortally wounded Minke whale thrashes as it is pulled up along side the Japanese catcher ship Kyo Maru No. 1. (Copyright: IFAW)
According to IFAW, 14,000 whales have been killed since 1988Image: IFAW

Even an advertising campaign and a series of auctions have failed to shift the surplus whale meat, with three-quarters of the meat unsold.

The study also claims "The Japanese government has engaged in a concerted effort to change the direction of the International Whaling Commission by recruiting new members to vote on its side" by linking overseas development aid to supporting votes.

The claim that Japan is conducting valuable "scientific whaling" is also shown to be a lie as despite killing 14,000 whales since 1988, the IWC's science committee found that the research had failed to achieve any of its stated objectives.

A section of the study is given over to the appropriation of funds designed to assist communities affected by the March 11 earthquake in Tohoku to the whaling industry, pointing out that some Y2.28 billion were diverted to supporting "research whaling, stabilization promotion and countermeasure expenses."

Billions in subsidies

Over the past 25 years, direct subsidies from the Ministry of Agriculture alone have cost the Japanese taxpayer more than Y30 billion.

And it's not as if the Japanese public is particularly keen on the final product, the study shows. More than 54 percent of Japanese are indifferent to whaling and a mere 11 percent replied to the poll that they are strongly in favor of Japan continuing its whaling program.

Nearly 90 percent of people surveyed have not bought whale meat in the last 12 months and 85 percent were opposed to billions of yen in taxpayers' money being used to build a new factory ship.

Sonntag also points out that the claim often put forward by those in favor of whaling that it is an important part of Japan's culture and history is incorrect as it was only introduced on an industrial scale in the lean years immediately after World War II.

"In any case, other countries that used to carry out high-seas whaling gave it up because they saw no future in it," he points out.

According to Patrick Ramage, director of IFAW's global whale program, meetings with Japanese politicians over the past week have gone "very positively" and vast majority of them are aware of the public anger that had been stoked by the revelation that emergency funds for the victims of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami had been diverted to the whaling industry.

A minke whale is flensed onboard the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru during a whale hunt in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. (Copyright: IFAW)
According to the report, the 'research' had failed to achieve any of its stated objectives since 1988Image: IFAW

Whale watching

He added that there was also renewed interest in IFAW's proposal for an alternative to commercial whaling in the form of whale watching, which would not require government subsidies and create far greater income from domestic tourism.

"The good people of Japan are paying billions to support a dying industry," Ramage says. "If their government wants to generate income and help coastal communities, it should support whale watching.

"Whaling is an economic loser in the 21st century."