Japan suspends whaling as economic reality hits

Japan whaling

Sea Shepherd's harassment blamed, but is debt-hit Tokyo simply unable to subsidise whale hunt?

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 11:46 ON Wed 16 Feb 2011

The news that Japan's whaling fleet has suspended operations temporarily and left its hunting grounds in the Southern Ocean will be seen as a victory for the direct action conservation group, Sea Shepherd. But the withdrawal of the whalers may have more to do with economic factors.

A Japanese Fisheries Agency spokesman told AFP: "We are now studying the situation, including the possibility of cutting the mission early... [but] nothing has been decided at this point."

The factory ship Nisshin Maru, which processes the carcasses of dead whales, suspended operations last week, after being successfully harassed by Sea Shepherd activists who were blocking its stern loading ramp.

Japan says it is no longer safe to operate because of Sea Shepherd's tactics, which last year culminated in the sinking of its futuristic speedboat the Ady Gil.

Alex Cornelissen, captain of the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling vessel Bob Barker, told NZPA today: "I think this year will mark the most successful year in [the Sea Shepherd's] history and we can only hope that this will be the moment the Japanese whaling fleet will decide to throw the towel in and this will be the end of Japanese whaling in the Antarctic."

Japan gets round the international moratorium on whaling - introduced by the International Whaling Commission in 1982 - by using a loophole that allows the animals to be killed for scientific research, although it is well-known that whale meat is sold for human consumption.

Japan is also under pressure from Australia, which is pursuing it through the International Court of Justice.

However, Tokyo's recent lack of commitment to meeting its whale quotas - it has caught fewer than its target in every year since at least 2007 - may have more to do with economic reality.

Whale meat is not as popular as it once was with the Japanese and much of it ends up being dumped in the form of school dinners. As of 2009, the country had a stockpile of 5,000 tonnes of whale meat. In a nation that is the most indebted in the developed world - owing 200 per cent of its gross domestic product - it is possible that subsidising its loss-making whaling industry is no longer sustainable.

Sea Shepherd believes that the Japanese whaling fleet is beginning to annoy the Japanese Fisheries Agency with its demands for more subsidy money.

It is true that the Japanese whaling fleet gives the appearance of being a force in decline. This year, only four ships were sent out by the country's Institute of Cetacean Research - the weakest the fleet has ever been, according to Sea Shepherd, who believe a maximum of only 30 whales may have been taken so far.

Whichever is the real reason for the whaling fleet backing off - economic reality or moral argument - it will doubtless be greeted as a stunning victory by Sea Shepherd, and justification for its much criticised direct action methods. These have included the use of lasers to temporarily blind whalers and harmless but foul-smelling butyric acid bombs.

Greenpeace, which uses more peaceful methods against whalers, has said Sea Shepherd's leader, Paul Watson - a founding member of Greenpeace who was expelled in 1977 - is a violent extremist. His success against Antarctic whaling will be bittersweet news to their ears. · 

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