Ending Japan's great cetacean hunt

Flensing of a Baird's beaked whale killed in a small-type coastal whaling hunt
Flensing of a Baird's beaked whale killed in a small-type coastal whaling hunt. Pott/EIA.
Japan's hunting of cetaceans has become a rallying point for nationalists, but demand for their meat is falling amid worries about toxic pollution. Fukushima could just prove to be the last straw for a declining industry ...

This October I've had the opportunity to spend some time in Japan meeting a range of stakeholders, including those involved in managing Japan's coastal hunts of small cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) as well as Japanese NGOs campaigning for them to end. Campaigning internationally on such issues is a delicate balance.

Countries and individuals working to end Japan's whale and dolphin hunts from the outside are often labelled as cultural imperialists, while those working to end them from within Japan struggle against a political system where it is not easy to speak out.

With the pro and anti-whaling perspectives taking their stance at either end of the spectrum, whaling has often become linked with national identity, whether artificially or for true cultural motives, and this can be seen across continents, from the Faroe Islands and Iceland to Japan.

It is an issue that gets emotive, often vitriolic responses from both sides. One only has to look at the comments on an article or Facebook post on this issue to see both critical condemnation and fiercely defensive points of view.

The outrage that hunts of these sentient, awe-inspiring creatures generates across the world has made whaling a rallying call for nationalists, and so as we campaign to end it, we risk ostracising nationals in whaling countries and entrenching whale and dolphin hunts as a cultural practice to be preserved for generations to come.

We went to Japan to release a new report, Toxic Catch, detailing the findings of a scientific review I co-authored for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The report documents the significant depletion of small cetacean populations in Japan's coastal waters as a result of the coastal hunt, as reported in The Ecologist.

Over a million small cetaceans have been killed in direct hunts in Japan in the last 70 years alone, 400,000 of which were the Dall's porpoise, a species hunted in the north-east of Japan. Catches of many of the small cetacean species have been declining for twenty years and changes in catch composition have signalled significant population declines. Indeed, some populations are thought to have fallen to less than 10 per cent of their former levels.

Disregarding clear signals of overexploitation the Government of Japan is continuing to set catch limits at unsustainable levels, whilst their knowledge of populations' status is shockingly inadequate and outdated. There are huge knowledge gaps regarding the structure, size and status of exploited populations, to the extent that for many of the populations targeted the last published abundance estimates are more than twenty years old.

As a scientist I find the lack of data available both frustrating and shocking, especially given the Government of Japan's often repeated statement that they pursue of policy of ‘sustainable utilisation' with respect to their whale and dolphin hunts.

Human cultures and traditions evolve. In 21st Century ‘modern' cultures, why are hunts for large and small cetaceans being preserved? In none of the whaling countries - Japan, Iceland, Norway - is whale meat an essential protein source. In fact there is declining domestic demand, particularly in Japan and Norway, while Iceland has never had any significant domestic demand.

All the meat from its endangered fin whale hunt is shipped to Japan - and sold cheaply in order to undercut the Japanese whale meat. The number of whales killed far outstrips demand in all three countries, and the meat and blubber is often consigned to warehouses, used for ‘biofuel' or channelled into animal feed.

For the small cetacean hunters in Japan it is a livelihood, but not a particularly profitable one given decreasing demand, except where subsidised by the sale of dolphins for the captivity industry.

Notwithstanding this, the products of these hunts contain such high levels of mercury, methyl-mercury and PCBs that they pose a severe health risk to consumers. Studies have linked the consumption of whale meat with impaired foetal neurological development, increased risk of Parkinson's disease, arteriosclerosis and diabetes and other cardiovascular, immunological and reproductive effects.

Japanese NGOs and consumer groups have made great strides forwards in getting the Government to publish any health warnings at all, but the guidance remains inadequate, outdated, unheard of, or even ignored. Now the radiation leaking into coastal waters from Fukushima poses a new threat to cetaceans and potentially consumers.

EIA is calling on the Japanese Government to phase out the hunts over time and to work with hunters to find alternative, sustainable livelihoods. By letting the hunts continue, and allowing consumption of toxic whale and dolphin products, the Japanese Government is placing both its marine biodiversity and its own citizens at risk. In the 21st century there is simply no justification for these unsustainable hunts to continue.

Sarah Baulch is Cetaceans Researcher with the Environmental Investigation Agency.