- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

TOKYO — Yoshinori Shoji strides up the slope, gesturing with his hand to indicate the length of a whale when laid out on the wooden floor of his roofless slaughter-house.

The gangly 45-year-old explains how his workers use long, razor-sharp machetes to cut through the thick blubber and chainsaws for the whale’s bones.

About 50 curious onlookers make their way to the small fishing town of Wadaura, east of Tokyo, to watch the butchering during whale-hunting season.

Mr. Shoji is president of Gaibo Hogei, a whaling company started by his grandfather in 1949. With two boats and 30 employees, the company catches whales and processes the meat as part of Japan’s coastal whaling industry.

His father first grew concerned about the future of his business after the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment recommended a 10-year moratorium on commercial whaling.

Since then, whaling has caused much fierce debate between supporters of the whaling industry and conservationists.

Despite numerous attacks by foreign governments and environmental groups against what they deem an unnecessary slaughter, Mr. Shoji remains defiant.

“I cannot find any reason why we should stop whaling,” he says. “Why is the whale so special to some people? It’s a fishery. What is the difference between a sardine and a whale?”

Opposing camps

Ever since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) introduced a ban on the commercial hunting of whales in 1986, companies such as Mr. Shoji’s have experienced a dramatic downturn in business.

As part of the moratorium’s aim to allow whale stocks to recover after years of decimation, Japanese coastal whalers are prohibited from killing minke whales, once a valuable resource. Eight coastal whaling firms in Japan now catch Baird’s beaked and pilot whales — species not subject to the ban.

“All of a sudden [Japanese whalers] were told that whaling was cruel and something to be ashamed of,” said Joji Morishita of the government’s fisheries agency. “From their point of view, whaling is something that shapes the very basis of their community, their identity and history, and they need a good reason to [stop].”

Although the moratorium was conceived as a temporary measure until whale populations had increased sufficiently, many of those signatory countries now disagree with a return to commercial hunting.

Two opposing camps have emerged in the IWC: those in favor of regulated whaling and those firmly against it. Last summer, the debate shifted when pro-whaling nations at the IWC’s meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis passed a resolution by one vote in support of overturning the 20-year-old ban.

Because a three-quarters majority is required to rescind the ban, the resolution was little more than symbolic.

New Zealand’s environment minister, Chris Clark, called the vote “the most serious defeat the conservation cause has ever suffered at the IWC.”

Dan Goodman, a former adviser in Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and now a consultant to the Japanese government, said the win was “a clear demonstration that anti-whaling is not … world opinion.”

Japan stopped commercial whaling in 1987, five years after the moratorium was passed. In autumn that year, its whaling fleet began “scientific research” in the Southern Ocean, which it continues today under an IWC clause.

The fleet, currently at sea in the Antarctic waters, plans to kill 850 minke and 10 fin whales this season.

Japanese researchers from the Institute of Cetacean Research, which receives about $10 million in annual government subsidies, hope to catch more than 1,200 whales, including sperm, Bryde’s and sei. The number of whales caught in the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific has more than doubled since 2000.

Critics say that these rising numbers are proof that the research is a cover for commercial whaling.

“We already have 20 years of research in the Southern Ocean,” said Junichi Sato of Greenpeace Japan. “If you’re researching wild animals, you have to reduce the samples every year as you get more data. That’s how we normally do research on land. You cannot increase the amount you kill each year.”

The Japanese government contends that the hunts are helping scientists understand more about whale populations and their feeding habits in the Antarctic.

Mr. Goodman said Japan’s research program is the only one to provide data essential for the management of Antarctic whale stocks. “You simply can’t manage biological resources properly without research,” he said.

Next season, Japan plans to target 50 humpback whales, which the World Conservation Union classifies as “vulnerable.”

Doug Thompson, an American marine naturalist, thinks the research to date “has come up with nothing of scientific importance that one couldn’t learn in basic marine biology in any high school.”

One of the many sticking points of the whaling issue involves population sizes. Anti-whaling groups say that any hunting is risky because there is no agreement about how many minke whales, for example, there are in the Antarctic.

The Japanese government counters that it is this lack of estimates that warrants the research.

Acting on politics

Mr. Morishita said that far from being a forum for scientific debate, the annual IWC meeting has become an arena for emotionally charged political blustering.

“Every year we just come to this organization and do the same discussion, knowing that any kind of vote will end up as nothing,” he said. “And we just care about our simple majority resolution, which might be one vote more this year and one vote more next year for the other side. We are just wasting money and time, year after year.”

Japan was accused of political maneuvering and “buying” to win last summer’s simple majority at the IWC by giving aid to some of the smaller member countries.

Mr. Morishita denies any wrongdoing, saying that the Japanese government is “prohibited from tying conditions to aid.”

The nonprofit Third Millennium Foundation released a report last year that said Tokyo has been providing fisheries grants worth millions of dollars to countries in return for their support in IWC votes. The 82-page report said Japan has recruited about 20 countries to the IWC.

Mr. Morishita said the increasing support for Japan’s position is a result of other countries agreeing with its argument for lifting the ban on commercial whaling.

Lester Bird, former prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, was more blunt about his government’s reasoning when interviewed in 2001.

“Quite frankly, I make no bones about it,” he said.

“If we are able to support the Japanese, and the quid pro quo is that they are going to give us some assistance, I am not going to be a hypocrite. That is part of why we do so.”

Anti-whaling countries have become equally active. Britain, determined to reverse last year’s vote at the IWC meeting this May in Alaska, recently began a campaign to recruit new member countries such as Slovenia and Croatia to the anti-whaling camp.

In response, Japan is organizing a conference this month in Tokyo to discuss whale populations and ways to revive the IWC’s role “as a resource-control body.”

When Japan asserts that the IWC needs overhauling, it cites the way in which the organization has stalled in implementing two systems for managing sustainable whaling. Mr. Goodman contends that carefully monitored catch quotas are the way all other fisheries are managed and should be applied to whales.

“The solution to the stalemate at the IWC is for the anti-whaling members to allow for a limited commercial hunt controlled by international regulations,” he said.

Changing market

Toshio Kasuya, a former Fisheries Agency bureaucrat on the IWC scientific committee, is skeptical of a return to any form of commercial whaling after examining what he calls the “dirty side” of the industry.

“It is a common understanding of ours that Japanese coastal whalers [used to take] two or three times the number of sperm whales they actually reported,” he said.

Mr. Thompson thinks the future lies in whale watching, not whale killing. The whale-watching industry, he said, generated worldwide revenues of more than $2 billion last year, with a growing sector in Japan.

“The business of killing whales is from another era,” he said. “It reminds me of our ancestors owning slaves. It was a ‘normal’ practice 150 years ago, and now we recoil at the thought.”

While Tokyo continues to fight for a chance to hunt more whales, its adversaries point out that there is no longer much demand for whale meat in Japan. “Whale meat was a sign of poverty and starvation from the past,” said Mr. Sato.

“As soon as the economy boomed, Japanese chose to eat beef, chicken or other kinds of meat, so the market naturally declined.”

Market or no market, Mr. Shoji said, Japanese should have the right to choose what they eat. “I don’t like people who say to me: ‘Do you need it?’ I think they can give up eating chicken and eat something else,” he said. “It’s a very silly discussion.”

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