Japan Finally Comes Clean—They Don’t Kill Whales for ‘Science’

Since 1986, Japan has masqueraded its whaling efforts as a scientific endeavor—but no more.

Environmental activists perform with a mock whale at a protest denouncing Japan's whaling in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on May 29, 2007. (Photo: Lee Won/Reuters)

Mar 1, 2013· 4 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The Japanese whaling fleet prowling the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is heading north, out of the protected zone, following its least successful hunting season ever, the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Australia has announced.

At the same time, the National Times of Australia claims that Japan’s Fisheries Minister, “has come clean about what the barbaric annual whale chase in the Antarctic is all about,” adding, “It has nothing to do with science.”

The news comes on the heels of a U.S. Federal Appeals Court ruling this week declaring Sea Shepherd a “pirate” outfit and upholding a ban against the group harassing whaling vessels.

According to Sea Shepherd Australia, the Japanese ships Nisshin Maru, Yushin Maru, Yushin Maru No. 2 and, Shonan Maru No. 2, have crossed the 60-degree latitude line, placing them out of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. They are accompanied by the Sea Shepherd ships Steve Irwin and Bob Barker, the statement said. The Japanese fleet first arrived in the sanctuary on January 28.

“Is whaling over for the season? We are not positive but we are 80 percent sure that it may be over,” said the statement, signed by Paul Watson, the captain who recently resigned from Sea Shepherd to comply with the U.S. Appeals Court. The ships are still heading north, he said. It would take days to refuel and return to the sanctuary.

“This would leave about a week to kill whales and with the weather quickly deteriorating it would hardly be worth the effort,” Watson wrote. “All three Sea Shepherd ships will continue to follow the whaling fleet north to ensure that they do not return to kill whales.”

It would appear that this year’s hunt was a dismal, expensive failure for the whalers, according to Watson.

“Sea Shepherd can only confirm the death of two Minke whales,” he said. “Some whales could have been taken on the run westward; the Nisshin Maru and the Yushin Maru No. 2 had two days to whale unobstructed.” But the Yushin Maru and Yushin Maru No. 3 failed to kill any whales, Watson said.

“My conservative estimate of the number of whales killed this year is no more than 75. It could be much lower but certainly not higher. Last year I predicted the whalers would take 30 percent of their kill quota. The actual kill was 26 percent,” he claimed. This year’s anti-whaling campaign “will see the lowest take by the Japanese whaling fleet in the entire history of their Antarctic whale hunts.”

As the ships headed north, presumably back to Japan, an editorial in Australia’s National Times made the somewhat questionable claim that the Japanese have abandoned their argument that the whale hunt is needed for “scientific research,” admitting instead it is done purely for cultural and food-supply reasons.

The 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling allows governments to issue permits for citizens to “kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research.” The Japanese have repeatedly insisted that science was the purpose of their hunt—much to the outrage and indignation of marine mammal activists.

But now, according to the National Times, Japan has “come clean” about the program. “It’s about killing whales for the sake of maintaining a cultural tradition, and harvesting the meat for consumption,” the editorial charged. “Nothing more.”

Japan’s Fisheries Minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, told Agence France-Presse this week that the world is engaging in “a cultural attack, a kind of prejudice against Japanese culture,” the National Times reported, “and he sees no reason to end southern whaling soon.”

Hayashi noted that some Koreans eat dogs and some Australians eat kangaroos. “We don’t eat those animals, but we don’t stop them from doing that because we understand that’s their culture,” he told the French news agency. “Whaling has long been part of traditional Japanese culture, so I just would like to say ‘please understand this is our culture.’ ”

“With these words, Mr. Hayashi has abandoned once and for all the pretense that (the Japanese) are engaged in some kind of highly valued research project,” the editorial said. “Mr Hayashi needs to be called out on this. Clearly he would prefer to indulge in cultural relativities when it suits Japanese interests, rather than follow international conventions.”

But the Japanese have played the “understand our culture” card before, many observers note, without retreating from its claim of scientific research. Without that claim, its whaling permit would be invalid. Some activists thought the Australian editorial overreached its conclusions, even as they welcomed the searing criticism.

But the searing criticism was not just aimed at Japan.

“The motivation of those aboard the Sea Shepherd (sic), which intercepts the Japanese vessels to try to stop the killing of whales, might be admirable but their methods are not,” the editorial said. “The deliberate buffeting of ships on the high seas—by both sides—is extraordinarily dangerous and unlawful. We agree with a U.S. appeals court that on Monday equated the Sea Shepherd’s tactics to piracy.”

Sea Shepherd rejects all allegations of piracy.

“The campaign saw two confrontations to prevent the killing of whales and three confrontations to prevent the illegal fueling of the Nisshin Maru, Watson asserted. “During the campaign the Sea Shepherd crews did not throw any projectiles or deploy any propeller-fouling devices. The Japanese whalers threw concussion grenades and hit the Sea Shepherd crewmembers with water cannons. All three Sea Shepherd ships were damaged after being struck multiple times by the 8,000 ton Nisshin Maru.”

The Japanese paint a different story.

“Japanese whalers are angrily renewing demands for action to restrain Sea Shepherd activists after what was claimed to be sabotage of refuelling operations off the Australian Antarctic Territory,” the National Times reported in a separate article. “Following five hours of intense conflict, the factory ship Nisshin Maru abandoned its latest attempt to refuel from the tanker Sun Laurel on Monday night.”

During clashes the Bob Barker and Sam Simon suffered superstructure damage in collisions with two Japanese ships. “Sea Shepherd is sabotaging [the] refueling operation,” said Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research, sponsor of the hunt, “which is essential for safe navigation of ships.” It called on countries where Sea Shepherd operates to, “restrain them and deal with their criminal actions in a strict and objective manner.”

It’s unlikely that the Japanese ships will not return next year, although the financial backers of this 19th-century-style venture must be having second thoughts: financially, politically and perhaps even ethically.

But one thing is certain, as autumn descends on the Southern Pacific Ocean, thousands of whales will live peacefully for the rest of the year, without the threat of an explosive harpoon plowing into their sleek, powerful bodies.

You don’t have to like Sea Shepherd to agree that is truly a welcomed development.