Tsunami stalls Japan's Dall’s porpoise slaughter, but for how long?

| 17th November 2011
Dall's porpoises awaiting processing. Photo: EIA
The Japanese tsunami appears to have temporarily halted the annual Dall's porpoise hunt. Pity the Taiji dolphins haven't been spared too, says the Environmental Investigation Agency's Clare Perry

The start of November marked the official opening of Japan’s annual hunt of the Dall’s porpoise, the largest direct hunt of any whale, dolphin and porpoise in the world. If this were a normal year, the seas off the port of Otsuchi, in the prefecture of Iwate in north-eastern Japan, would be stained red for the six-month duration of the hand harpoon hunt.

But it’s not a normal year. Otsuchi and the surrounding region were devastated in March’s tsunami; citizens killed or displaced, coastal infrastructure and industry shattered.

In the past, the Dall’s hunt has resulted in the annual butchery of up to 15,000 porpoises, although that figure has been slowly declining and in 2009, the last year for which numbers are available, it was about half that. International Whaling Commission (IWC) scientists have previously described the Dall’s hunt as 'clearly unsustainable'.

Information from our contacts in the region, and my own instincts, suggest it could take several years for the area to be rebuilt and so allow the hunt to begin again.

There’s no question that the tsunami was a human and environmental tragedy, but it’s a particular shame that it took such an horrendous blow to halt the Dall’s hunt. If anything positive could have come from the destruction, it was that Japan had been given the perfect opportunity to walk away from this wholesale butchery of cetaceans, and the near-universal international condemnation of its whaling activities, without losing face.

Sadly, it seems Japan has no interest in altering its belligerent whaling policies; indeed, a statement recently released by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries indicates that it is requesting 2.28 billion yen from the tsunami reconstruction budget to ensure the ‘stable execution’ of the 2011 season of the Antarctic Whale Survey (JARPA), which it claims will stimulate the restoration and revival of the whaling region along the north-eastern coast.

There is nothing to indicate a change in official Japanese attitudes, and nothing at all to stop the country’s well-connected whaling interests from embarking on this destructive hunt when conditions once again make it possible.

With or without the Dall’s hunt physically taking place this season, Japan is gearing up for yet another annual ‘scientific whaling’ season in the Antarctic, and whale and dolphin hunts at Taiji are ongoing, continuing to supply Japanese consumers with cetacean products laden with dangerous pollutants, including mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The Environmental Investigation Agency has travelled to Otsuchi many times in recent years to monitor and raise awareness of the Dall’s hunt in a bid to ensure its grossly detrimental impact on marine conservation and consumer health does not continue to be overlooked.
The hunt poses not just a major threat to the future of Dall’s porpoises but also to those unwitting consumers who eat the flesh produced, who are ignorant of the considerable health risks in so doing. More than 300,000 Dall’s porpoises have been hunted in the past two decades, just to produce toxic meat for human consumption. The vast majority of Japanese people know nothing of the Dall’s hunt and continue to be misled about its realities, both in regard to the true nature of the resulting products and to the very serious health risks of eating such contaminated meat.

Based on 1972 World Health Organisation recommendations, Japan’s Health Ministry (JMHLW) has set human consumption limits for methylmercury and blanket maximum contamination levels in seafood products. Significantly, whales and dolphins, which routinely exceed the set levels, are excluded from these safety limits. 
As part of a study published by Japanese scientists in August 2005, analysis was carried out on nine samples of Dall’s porpoise meat destined for human consumption. The average methylmercury concentration over all the Dall’s samples was almost three-and-a-half times the recommended limit.
In addition, eight Dall’s porpoise blubber products analysed by Japanese scientists, commissioned by EIA, revealed high PCB levels, with one product purchased in Shizuoka, near Tokyo, having a concentration eight times higher than the regulatory level.
Medical research has established a strong link between mercury in cetacean products and a variety of human diseases and medical conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, arteriosclerosis, immune subsystem suppression and hypertension. Threats to children include autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

The 2011-12 hunting season for Dall’s porpoises may have officially opened, and it could well be that this time around Japan’s hand-harpoon hunters are unable to take advantage of it – but by striving for a business-as-usual state of affairs, the Government of Japan is passing up a golden opportunity to do the right thing of its own volition.

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