Global Economics

Season Closes, and Japan's Whalers Fume


As critics on the International Whaling Commission continue targeting the country's "research" fishery, Tokyo may opt out of the group altogether

With this year's whale-hunting season in the Antarctic drawing to a close, Hideki Moronuki can't stop fuming about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The anti-whaling group last month clashed at sea with the Japanese whaling boat Nisshin Maru. "Eco-terrorists," says the head of the Japanese Fisheries Agency's whaling division. "They use violence against anyone who doesn't agree with their views."

Harsh words are a staple during Japan's hunting season in the Southern Ocean, which lasts through mid-April. In recent years, environmentalists have staged publicity stunts to try to prevent the Japanese fleet from catching some 1,000 minke, Brydes, sperm, sei, and fin whales annually. At times it can turn ugly. Last month, Sea Shepherd activists tailing the Nisshin Maru threw rancid butter onto the deck of the Japanese ship to try to spoil the whale meat on board. The Japanese crew retaliated by firing a noise-making stun gun. Both sides later claimed injuries.

Japanese consumers' demand for whale meat peaked after World War II, when protein was in short supply; it has declined steadily since, although whale meat is still considered a traditional food. The country's research whaling program only began in the 1990s. It spends $60 million a year on the hunts and defrays the costs by selling 5,000 to 6,000 tons of whale meat annually to wholesalers. The stated aim: To use data collected from the hunts to show that whales are plentiful. Moronuki is dismissive of groups that lump all whales into one category. "According to the super-whale theory, 'the whale' is threatened to extinction," he says. "But there's no such thing as 'the whale.' There's the blue whale, the fin whale, the humpback whale, the minke whale, 'the whale' is not threatened to extinction."

Overhauling the Whaling Commission

Tensions between the world's pro- and anti-whaling blocs are nothing new. The two sides have been going at it since the International Whaling Commission imposed a global ban on commercial whaling 25 years ago. (The 78-nation commission makes exceptions for indigenous groups with whaling traditions in the U.S., Canada, St. Vincent, and the Grenadines.) Lately, though, the IWC's annual meetings have been paralyzed by petty fighting.

Now the Washington-based Pew Charitable Trusts is leading an effort to fix the IWC for the first time since its founding in 1946. "The member nations need to think seriously about modernizing the IWC," says J. Charles Fox, a whaling expert with the Pew Charitable Trusts' environment group. In the past year, Pew officials have brought the opposing camps together to discuss ways to overhaul the IWC. They have done so in two special, closed-door meetings—in New York last April and in Tokyo at the end of January.

Most agree that the IWC is dysfunctional. Its worst failing: It lacks the power to resolve disputes. And countries can simply opt out of the ban, as Norway did in 1993, to resume commercial whaling. The hard part is figuring out what a new commission should look like.

Not a Conservation Group

IWC reform will be a big part of discussions at the body's annual meeting in Santiago, Chile, in June. But there's unlikely to be much progress until the two sides can agree to keep or scrap the ban on commercial whaling. Nobody disputes that the moratorium saved several species that had been pushed to the brink of extinction by excessive whaling, but the two sides remain far apart on how many whales there are and how many there need to be before hunting resumes.

The IWC's studies are mostly inconclusive. The Switzerland-based World Conservation Union lists five of the roughly 80 whale species—the blue, sei, fin, and two types of right whales—as endangered. Three other types are also thought to be at risk of extinction. Japan sees that as evidence that not all whales should be off limits. It argues the IWC is supposed to be a whaling regulator, not a conservation group.

Despite the sizable annual catches, Japan's regulatory operation concerned with whaling is tiny. Just six officials manage the program from a cluster of desks on the eighth floor of the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry. They get help from a non-profit group known as the Institute of Cetacean Research. One recent morning, ministry staffers in shirtsleeves were thumbing through binders labeled JARPA and JARPN that lay in disorderly piles and crowded the bookshelves. (JARPA is short for Japan's Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Antarctic and JARPN for Japan's Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Western North Pacific.)

Sustainable Use of Whales

Critics argue that research whaling is simply a way for Japan to keep what's left of its whaling industry on life-support. (Iceland began researching whaling in 2006.) The U.S., Britain, Australia, and New Zealand point out that the whale meat turns up in school lunches, restaurants, and Japanese homes. Greenpeace says that instead of hunting, Japan could use special darts that extract tissue samples from whales without injuring them. Many environmentalist groups also accuse Japan of recruiting new IWC members and buying their votes with foreign aid.

What's ironic about the impasse is that both sides get what they want. Japan gets to continue small-scale whaling, which it says is necessary for a country that lacks natural resources and food self-sufficiency. And anti-whaling nations continue to support the ban.

That won't last forever. Recently, Tokyo has been talking tough. If no compromise is reached by the next couple of meetings, "The IWC will collapse," says Moronuki, the Japanese whaling division official. "And if that happens, Japan needs to come up with a plan for the sustainable use of whales."

Hall is BusinessWeek's technology correspondent in Tokyo .

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