Whaling may be sunk by commercial reality
Japan’s annual research whaling expedition is now being carried out in the Antarctic. As always, the controversy over whaling receives more coverage in the foreign press than it does in the Japanese media, which for all intents and purposes doesn’t normally pay attention unless arrests or violence is involved. However, Tokyo Shimbun last week reported on some of the commercial aspects of the issue.
According to the newspaper, in 2011 the amount of frozen whale in storage and designated for retail distribution exceeded 5,000 tons, which is almost three times the amount of frozen whale meat in storage 10 years ago. There are two sources of this meat: imports from other whale-catching countries, and the research whaling program carried out by Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research and the company Kyodo Senpaku. The purpose of the research is to “determine growth by means of checking weight and body length” of whales that are caught and killed. Afterward, the whale meat is sold to help pay for the research, which costs about ¥6 billion a year. The Japanese government provides a subsidy of ¥1 billion, which means the meat sales have to cover the remaining ¥5 billion.
The increase in frozen inventory means that the costs aren’t being covered, and that the research project is operating in the red, though Tokyo Shimbun doesn’t say by how much. Until 2006, the amount of yearly stock kept increasing because the annual catch quota was also increasing, but ever since the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society started interfering with the Antarctic hunt the amounts caught have not increased. However, overall stocks have. At the end of 2010, they amounted to 5,300 tons, and though Kyodo Senpaku only brought back 18 percent of its planned catch last year after it cut short the hunt, as of last October stocks of whale meat had increased to 5,400 tons.
An official of Kyodo Senpaku told the paper that “supermarkets with international business” have stopped carrying whale meat due to pressure from antiwhaling groups and foreign stockholders. Ito Yokado stopped selling whale several years ago because of low demand. In addition, Maruha Nichiro Holdings ceased its whale meat canning operations in 2008, also because of pressure from antiwhaling groups.
However, Tokyo Shimbun says that the main disincentive seems to be economic. A survey of supermarkets in the Kanto region found that the going rate for whale sashimi is about ¥400 per 100 grams, which is the same as that for high quality Japanese beef. One supermarket manager told the paper that the only customers who ever buy whale are old people “who have some nostalgic longing for it.” Young people never buy it. We visited three supermarkets near out home and found that only two carried whale “bacon” in vacuum-sealed packages containing only four or five very thin slices for about ¥500.
The Japan Institute of Cetacean Research has asked the government to “review the cost management system using whale meat sales,” which is basically another way of saying it has asked the government for larger subsidies to make up for the shortfall in revenues. It isn’t clear what the government will do. Last year the Ministry of Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries created an advisory panel to study the issue. Some members recommended the government take over the research whaling program, while others said that it wasn’t worth the cost and the “danger.”
As a side note, last year a Tohoku University assistant professor named Atsushi Ishii published a book called “Hoge Ronso” (“Whale Hunting Controversy”), which advances the hypothesis that the conflict between pro- and anti-whaling forces is not caused by whaling itself but by the need for each side to have an adversary, because without the conflict neither position can exist. Due to protests, especially violent protests, advocates for the resumption of commercial whaling can demand more money and attention from the Japanese government for research whaling. On the other hand, antiwhaling groups can point to Japan’s intransigence over the issue in order to raise more money.
Commercial whaling is basically a moribund industry, so the prowhaling side needs enemies like Sea Shepherd to keep it alive. By the same token, if Japan gave up the research whaling program, Sea Shepherd would lose its formidable fundraising base. Ishii says that the conflicts over global warming and nuclear power work on the same dynamic.
(Edit: The following line was removed with regard to one of the comments: “Sea Shepherd, for instance, recently purchased expensive drone airplanes to use in its quest to stop the Antarctic hunt.”)