Is Japan’s Whaling Industry Going Under as Demand Sinks?

Is Japan’s Whaling Industry Going Under as Demand Sinks?
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

Japan’s whaling industry is struggling to stay afloat as government subsidies dwindle and consumers are less interested in what used to be a staple food on Japanese dinner tables.

By Julian Ryall

Three years after Japan pulled out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and announced that whalers would be permitted to resume commercial hunting there, the industry is on the brink of collapse.

A sector that employed thousands of people in the decades immediately after World War II, and sustained entire communities during those difficult economic times, is today losing the government subsidies that have kept it afloat. More and more, it is also delivering a product that very few people want to buy.  

The whaling industry insists that it is pushing ahead with plans to modernize operations, cut costs, and encourage more people to consume whale meat, but environmental campaigners says they are just delaying the inevitable.

What is the status of Japan’s whaling industry?

Three years ago, Japan had become frustrated by its inability to convince other members of the IWC that there are sufficient whales in the world’s oceans to justify a return to commercial whaling.

At the same time, Japanese whalers drew international criticism for exploiting a loophole in the IWC’s regulations that permitted “scientific whaling.”Japan harpooned hundreds of whales across the Pacific every year on the pretext of studying their migration routes and to obtain data on whale numbers, their health, and breeding patterns.

In order that the “byproduct” of this lethal research did not go to waste, the fisheries ministry was keen to emphasize that whale meat was then sold. 

While the industry was delighted that the government was once more permitting them to carry out commercial whaling, there was concern that state subsidies would be phased out and that whaling firms would have to operate like any other private sector firm.

If they failed to make a profit, then they would go under.  

Japan’s whaling fleet is operated by Kyodo Senpaku Co., the sole offshore whaling company in Japan. It has an annual quota of 52 minke whales, 150 Bryde’s, and 25 sei whales within the nation’s exclusive economic zone.

Kyodo Senpaku employs 170 people. It operates four ships, consisting of three hunting vessels, and the world’s only whaling factory ship, Nisshin Maru, which processes the carcasses.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
A worker carries meats of Baird's Beaked whale at Wada port in Minamiboso, southeast of Tokyo, Japan, July 18, 2019.

According to the Fisheries Agency, the government provided subsidies of approximately 5.1 billion yen (€36.5 million) for “scientific whaling” each year to keep the industry afloat.

However, that was cut to 1.3 billion yen after Japan left the IWC, and last year it slashed subsidies to a loan of 340 million yen that needs to be repaid. 

Without subsidies, the break-even price for 1 kilogram of whale meat is 1,200 yen (€8.58). However, the 2,000 tons that was caught in 2020 was sold at an average of just 1,100 yen.

A key part of the industry’s modernization plan is the construction of a new mother ship, with work scheduled to start next year and completed in March 2024.

The price tag 6 billion yen should be offset if the government permits an expanded quota of whales and the Japanese public can be convinced to eat more whale meat, said Konomu Kubo, a spokesman for Kyodo Senpaku. 

Whalers try and make whale meat more appealing

“In addition to its excellent nutritional value, whale meat has health functions. such as an anti-fatigue effect and helping to prevent dementia, according to the results of scientific studies,” he told DW.

“Also, in terms of taste and depending on the way it is cooked, I think whale meat is nice food that is by no means inferior to beef and tuna. We believe that implementing various promotional activities will increase the value of whale meat and lead to increased sales,” he added.  

Patrick Ramage, senior director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, dismisses the whaler’s claim.  

“What we are witnessing is a dying industry sinking of its own weight,” he told DW.

“Japan’s withdrawal from high seas whaling was a death blow, an acknowledgement that even massive government subsidies could not keep it afloat. Thirty-six months later, even the most ardent advocates for commercial whaling see it as a charity case, completely reliant on taxpayers’ support,” he said.

“Consumer demand continues to plummet while costs continue to soar,” he added.

“Even the Japan Fisheries Agency has now abandoned any pretense that commercial whaling can be profitable. Over the past 60 years, whale meat consumption in Japan has dropped by 99%. Spending billions of yen to build a new boat will not revive an industry that is dead in the water,” Ramage said.

An end to whaling communities?

Ramage said there are alternatives for communities that have previously survived on slaughtering whales.

“As commercial whaling moves through the stages of death, coastal communities from Hokkaido to Okinawa are migrating to whale and dolphin watching, a profitable ecotourism activity in Japan and worldwide,” the activist added.

“The case is increasingly clear – saving the whales costs less and delivers more than saving the whaling.”

Mariko Abe of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan echoed the belief that whaling in Japan is on its last legs.  

“Whale used to a ‘traditional food’ for millions of Japanese, but that time has gone and young people just do not look at it that way any more,” she told DW.

“Most of them have never eaten whale and are not interested in trying it. It makes absolutely no economic sense to build this new whaling ship and to set out to catch more whales because no-one wants to buy it,” she said.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

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This article was originally published on Deutsche Welle. Read the original article here.

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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