The past few years have seen a sharp rise in awareness, and criticism, of Japanese whaling practices. The Oscar winning documentary The Cove and Animal Planet's television show Whale Wars have brought western public attention to the killing of both large and small cetaceans. Whale meat is sold openly in Japanese markets and caught by a government supported fleet of five ships that operates under the guise of conducting experiments for Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research.
A memorandum passed by the IWC (International Whaling Commission) in 1986 theoretically abolished commercial whaling but allows exceptions for research based killings. Japan technically operates within this mandate. The country has been granted the authority to set its own quota for the hunt and currently, the fleet kills 940 minke and 10 fin whales annually. The ships typically depart mid-December and hunt in a whale sanctuary off the coast of Antarctica. Japan has rejected offers to join non-lethal whale research programmes and stands to make an estimated profit of 100,000 US dollars per year from its catch.
Japan is the main focal point of international attention. Most anti-whaling organisations and movements centre their causes around the Japanese fleet in the Southern Ocean but while the Land of the Rising Sun receives the most attention, it is by no means the only nation involved in the whale hunt.
Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands all continue to catch and kill whales, none of which is for research purposes. Food rather than science is behind the continuation of Scandinavian whaling operations.
The Faroe Islands, a small island chain with ties to Denmark, slaughters approximately 1,000 long-finned pilot whales in an annual traditional killing supervised by local authorities. The IWC's jurisdiction over most small cetaceans is still under discussion and thus far does not extend to the whales that frequent the Faroe Islands coastal waters. The islands' main justification is that most of the slaughtered animals are subsequently eaten and provide a healthy and abundant food supply for communities bordering the sea. None of the catch, argue the Faroese whalers, is sold for profit.
In 2008, however, the Faroese government's chief medical officer released advice stating that levels of mercury and other toxic chemicals in the whale meat are too high for human consumption and should be avoided. Potential damage from ingestion include impaired neural development and immunity deficiencies in fetuses and children, while contributing to higher rates of Parkinson's disease, circulatory problems and infertility in adults. Warnings about high levels of mercury has not, unfortunately, prevented other nations from restarting their own whaling programmes.
In 2006 the Icelandic government began to issue permits for the killing of the endangered fin whale and fully resumed commercial whaling. The 2009 season catch was reported to be 125 fin whales, falling short of the maximum of 150. However the policy allowed the remaining amount to be carried over into the 2010 season. Leading the charge is Iceland's Hvalur. CEO, Kristjan Loftsson, believes that the fin whale's place on the endangered species list is invalid and has been quoted as saying that he didn't understand the controversy surrounding whaling because 'whales are just another fish.' He now sits on Iceland's delegation for the IWC, an organisation he has publicly derided as 'useless.'
Whale meat market in decline
Norway's contribution to the whaling industry is unique in two ways. First, it filed an official objection to the 1986 IWC memorandum banning commercial whaling and therefore is not obliged to abide by its restrictions but remains a voting member of the IWC. Second, Norway recently raised its hunting quota to 1,286, making it the country with the highest quotas anywhere in the world. The increase in quota numbers comes as the demand for whale meat declines not only in Norway, but globally. In fact the 2009 Norwegian whaling season closed ahead of schedule due, in part, to the bottoming out of the meat prices.
Other countries have provisions and allowances for the killing of whales for native or Inuit inhabitants. These countries include Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (four humpback whales annually), Canada (one bowhead whale every two years), The United States of America (50 bowhead whales annually) and Greenland (175 whales per year, typically minke and the endangered fin whale). Other nations such as Indonesia and Russia allow small villages to hunt unsupervised.
Almost all major whaling nations deny evidence pointing to near-human levels of intelligence in cetaceans. Many choose to hide behind claims of tradition or economics but commercial whaling on an industrial scale is relatively unique only to the 20th century. Pro-whaling governments appear to be pouring more and more money into their industries while profit margins are falling. As international condemnation increases and worldwide awareness of rising mercury levels in all sea creatures, especially sea mammals, grows, the monetary motivation that keeps whaling alive is drying up.
Peter Nolan-Smith is the editor of The Dirty Word
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