Japan's whaling fleet has left port under heavy guard, where more clashes are expected with members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Japan’s whaling fleet left port on Tuesday under heavy guard as it prepared to kill almost 1 000 whales in the Antarctic, where more clashes are expected with members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and accusations that the fleet was taking cash intended for fishing communities hit by the March earthquake and tsunami.
Three ships, led by the 720-tonne Yushin Maru and accompanied by a fisheries agency guard vessel, left Shimonoseki port in south-western Japan.
According to campaigners, the government used $30-million from the earthquake recovery fund, on top of its existing $10-million annual subsidy, to pay for this year’s hunt.
“It is absolutely disgraceful for the Japanese government to pump yet more [public] money on an unneeded, unwanted and economically unviable whaling programme when funds are desperately needed for recovery efforts,” said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan.
“The whaling programme is a black mark on Japan’s international reputation and a black hole for [public] money. Pouring billions of yen into Antarctic whaling during this time of crisis is downright shameful. Japan cannot afford to waste money on whaling in the Antarctic when its people are suffering at home.”
The fisheries agency said the use of the fund was justified because one the towns destroyed by the tsunami was a whaling port.
Reports said that several Japanese groups had written a letter protesting the use of recovery cash to the prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda.
“We demand the government not waste any more ... money on the whaling program but instead spend this money on projects that actually help the people, communities and region affected by the tragic March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis,” the letter said.
“It is clear that the Japanese government’s stated goal of resuming commercial whaling in the Southern ocean is unachievable. The whaling program cannot survive without [public] hand-outs.”
The fisheries agency would not confirm that the fleet had left or say how long it would remain at sea. Japan’s whalers usually leave for the southern ocean in December and return in April.
For the past six years, the fleet has clashed with Sea Shepherd activists, one of whom was given a suspended prison sentence last year after boarding a whaling vessel to protest the destruction of the group’s hi-tech speedboat.
Last year, Sea Shepherd claimed a significant victory after its campaign of harassment forced the fleet to return to port a month early with 172 whales, just one-fifth of its intended catch.
Sea Shepherd had pursued the fleet through treacherous waters, hurling rancid butter onto the decks of whaling ships and positioning its boats between the harpooners and their prey.
This year, the whalers plan to kill just over 900 minke whales and about 50 fin whales, reports said. Commercial whaling was banned in 1986, but the International Whaling Commission [IWC] permits Japan to kill a limited number of whales for “scientific research”.
Environmentalists condemn the practice as commercial whaling by another name, since the IWC allows meat from the research expeditions to be sold to restaurants and supermarkets.
Robbie Marsland of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in London said: “We are disappointed although not surprised that Japan’s whaling fleet has once more set sail for Antarctica to slaughter more whales. The reality, though, is that the whaling industry is dying and this is its last gasp. The economics show that whaling is unprofitable and a bad policy for the Japanese people as well as for whales.”
Last year, the IWC failed to agree on a proposal to allow Japan to catch whales in coastal waters in return for reducing its catch in the Antarctic.
Japan’s annual cull has caused friction with Australia and New Zealand, which have again called on the fleet to abandon its hunt in an area they regard as a whale sanctuary.
Why is Japan so adamant about whaling?
Japan’s whaling is subject to a 1986 international moratorium and is opposed by many other countries. Japan officially halted commercial whaling in 1987 but used a loophole in the moratorium to continue whaling under the premise of scientific research.
Many people do not pay much attention to whaling in Japan where many regard whales as fishery stock rather than endangered animals.
“Japanese people do not hold such negative feelings about using whales as fishery resources as those in other countries,” said Nanami Kurasawa, executive director of the Dolphin & Whale Action Network. “Those in their 50s and 60s used to eat whale meat for school lunches, which I believe has partly contributed to the perception.”
Although the US has opposed Japan’s whaling, its occupation authorities after World War II ironically helped establish the practice, urging the war-ravaged country to serve whale meat at schools as a cheap source of protein.
One of the problems has been a lack of public awareness about the issue as the mainstream media, often criticised as government mouthpieces, fail to provide what critics called fair and comprehensive coverage.
Most of the media reports concerning the issue in recent years have been about the obstruction of whaling and much less about what so-called research whaling is all about.
Not surprisingly, nationalism plays a part in Japan’s pro-whaling campaign. Japan’s media coverage and Sea Shepherd’s tactics, including boarding whaling ships and sailing into their paths, have contributed to it, critics said.
The whaling issue gives some politicians a chance to raise their public profiles, Kurasawa said. “Unfortunately, it has become an important mission to protect the whaling fleet from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society with the group labelled as terrorists,” she said.
The Japan Coast Guard said Monday that it would protect the fleet from Sea Shepherd obstructions after the whaling ships had to cut short their hunt last season in mid-February because of the anti-whaling group.
Tatsuya Nakaoku, a fisheries agency official, defended Japan’s whaling.
“From long ago, Japanese people have eaten whales,” he said. “Our family often eats whale meat at home.”
But critics said such eating habits were rooted only in limited areas of the nation. The real reason for supporting whaling stems from national honour, they said.
“The fundamental root cause of the whaling issue is a kind of trauma since Japan was labelled a cruel country and a culture of eating whales was denied,” said Tetsu Sato, professor of ecology and environmental studies at Nagano University.
“It is a problem of government and bureaucratic pride,” he said.
Sato said anti-whaling nations also have the trauma of having been misled by Japan, which they have criticised for using its scientific research whaling as a cover for commercial hunting.
“As both sides have such traumas, I believe that has had an adverse impact on subsequent negotiations,” Sato said.
“As Japan’s pro-whaling group feels they are the ones who always have to compromise, they need a kind of victory of their claim being accepted,” he said.—