Save the Whales? OK, But Which Whales?

(from "Asahi Evening News", 21/Jun/1996)

Gregory Jackson

Kiyohiko Tanahashi is pretty much like any other restaurateur in Shibuya, except for the fact that most Westerners would rather die than have to eat what he serves - whale meat.

Whale still appears periodically on the menu at izakaya bars around the country, but not many restaurants specialize in it.

"Kujira-ya" was established by Tanahashi's grandfather in 1955, at a time when whalemeat was still one of the few protein sources available to the Japanese population in the early postwar years. Now his main sources of meat are the Japanese Antarctic scientific research vessels that are investigating the possibility of restarting sustainable commercial whaling.

Tanahashi hopes this year's International Whaling Commission conference in Aberdeen, Scotland will allow Japan an annual sustainable harvest of Minke whales - valued in whale cuisine for its superior flavor.

"What some environmental organizations report through the media isn't reality," said Tanahashi. "If Minke really were decreasing in number, I'd have no choice but to recognize that and close the business."

The number of Minke whales in the Antarctic is conservatively estimated to be around 760,000, a figure given by the IWC in its Revised Management Plan back in 1991. In the same report, the scientific committee of the IWC suggested that an annual commercial harvest of 2,000 whales would pose no risk to the continued healthy increase of the species, which has a much shorter reproductive cycle than other endangered species such as the blue whale.

When the IWC concerns on June 24, Japan will reapply for a partial relaxation of the current moratorium, which they have adhered to since 1986, and ask for a quota of 50 Minke whales, to be caught by ships from four towns - Taiji, Ayukawa, Wadaura and Abashiri.

"It's far more serious for them than me," said Tanahashi. "Whale culture is so much a part of life there that if you don't have whalemeat there would be little reason to return home at New Year."

John Frizell of Greenpeace UK believes the Japanese request of 50 Minke whales just represents the thin end of the wedge for commercial whaling demands. "This is the last full stock of large whales left in the world," he said. "We want to keep it that way."

Easing ban won't endanger stocks

But Anny Wong, a researcher from the Department of Political Science at the University of Manoa in Hawaii, doubts a relaxation of the moratorium would endanger Minke stocks.

"Times are different. I don't think that the IWC would go back to its old ways and be blind to environmental concerns, nor will the pro-whaling forces," she said.

The 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) created the IWC with a mandate to ensure commercial whaling would be confined to those species best able to sustain exploitation.

"People forget this," said Shigeko Misaki, of the Tokyo Institute of Cetacean Research. "These days it feels more like an anti-whaling organization."

Japanese and Norwegian whalers in particular have long proved valuable political currency for environmental groups arguing for the continued implementation of the moratorium. However the IWC's scientific evidence suggests that Minke stocks are more than robust enough to sustain the limited harvesting Japan is requesting.

"The problem is whether human beings can ever 'manage' whaling," said Naoko Funabashi, an Anti-whaling Campaign Consultant for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who opposes whaling on principle.

Wong believes the reluctance of environmentalists to give up the fight extends beyond whaling itself. "The ramifications may be even greater for those environmental movements than for the pro-whaling countries. The latter are fighting for a principle, while the former rely on the anti-whaling campaign for their image, credibility as an environmental group, and for finance. The whale icon is a powerful money raiser."

"The Save the Whale Campaign was saying there is only one species of whale - superwhale," said Misaki. "They made no distinction. Minke whales were not even recognized. But Japan was not hunting the larger whales."

Funabashi acknowledges that among environmental campaigners scientific accuracy has been sacrificed in the past.

"I was in Greenpeace before and I do know some people who don't care much for accuracy," she said. "But some people do care. When they started the whale campaign in the 1970s we didn't know enough about the issue. They still make mistakes - we all do."