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Friday, February 8, 2013

A Whale Of A Conservation Problem

While working in a large Hitachi R&D complex in Japan in the 1990’s, I ate daily in the large company cafeteria along with thousands of my Japanese colleagues. Noodles – warm in winter and cold in summer – along with many fish and tempura dishes were served. The dishes were quite nutritious and balanced with a variety of salads and Japanese delicacies from octopus and squid to natto (fermented soybeans) and hoshi-imo (dried yams) that were welcomed by the busy workforce.

But what was shocking to me was when small plates of whale meat were occasionally served. Sandwiched up between the salads and pickled vegetables in the cafeteria shelves, I had to do a double-take when my eye first saw the dish. “Whale?!?” I thought. “It can’t be; this is modern society.” But I checked the Japanese characters with my dictionary and then confirmed with my colleagues. Yes, it was in fact whale meat being served.

While initially surprising, my innate curiosity nearly led me to grab the dish for a taste. But my conservationist perspective put a halt to my thoughts. But it was served more than once. Always fried, the small chucks of whale meat looked like pieces of fried chicken. I understood the historic reasons for whale meat in the Japanese diet, but my mind always recalled the beautiful sounds of the whales that I heard while swimming in Hawaii. While I eat regularly beef and chicken, with an occasional buffalo burger or ostrich steak during my travels, I am most definitely not a vegetarian. But listening to whales is so much more appealing to my open water swimmer sensitivities than devouring their fried carcass.

The Hitachi plant is located close to the seaside near Ibaraki Prefecture’s main fishing port, so the cafeteria served a staggering number of marine products. The local sea produced much to keep the employees nutritionally energized, but I gladly grabbed a seaweed salad every time I saw the chucks of cetaceans. I could only imagine the wondrous sounds of the whales being replaced by cries of anguish as killing harpoons delved deeply in their blubber and bloody butchering on the decks of a whaling vessel.

But partly to changing dietary habits and foreign pressure, the demand for whale meat has fallen significantly in Japan. Commercial whaling was halted in 1986, but a clause in the International Whaling Commission convention allows countries like Japan and Iceland to hunt whales for research purposes. In Japan, the whale meat can be sold on the open market in order to cover the cost of this research. The International Fund for Animal Welfare reported this week that the thinly disguised commercial whaling practices have cost taxpayers US$378 million since 1987 without being offset by much value due to the research efforts.

Naoko Funahashi of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and a member of the International Whaling Commission reported, "There are very, very few findings which meet [scientific] aims." Other marine conservation biologists around the world believe similarly.

Masayuki Komatsu, a former Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official in Japan, believes there are Japan’s official annual target is 850 minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpback whales. In 2005, the Japanese researchers killed 866 whales, but have stopped hunting humpbacks due to international pressure. Komatsu claims that the number of whales taken is far too small to achieve scientific significance and if the planned number of whales could be killed and analyzed, the data would shed light on the size and health of stocks, and the interaction of whales with their prey and the ecosystem.

But most biologists and others around the world do not agree that research require hunting and killing the whales.

The government subsidies are keeping alive an industry that is facing significantly reduced demand from the Japanese population and is placing an increasing heavier financial burden on the Japanese government at a time when economic conditions has stagnated.

In the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, Japan's four-vessel whaling fleet is now hunting minke and fin whales and being followed by the Sea Shepard Conservation Society that wishes to interrupt the annual hunt with its own four vessels, a helicopter, and drones.

Copyright © 2013 by Open Water Source

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