Chisaki Watanabe in Tokyo
April 14, 2008
Violent clashes with animal rights groups combined with fewer whale sightings forced Japan's whaling fleet to head home from Antarctic waters with only 55 percent of its hunting target, the Japanese government said Monday.
Starting tomorrow whalers are to return with 551 minke whales—far less than the original plan to kill up to 935 minkes and 50 fin whales.
Anti-whaling activists had chased whaling ships for much of this season's hunt, blocking their paths and pelting boats with containers of rancid butter, slightly injuring several crew members.
In January two activists from the group Sea Shepherd jumped onto one of the Japanese ships and spent several days in detention on board.
Japanese whalers hunt under an internationally permitted research exemption to the 1986 ban on commercial whaling.
In a statement issued today Japan's fisheries agency said that this season "we did not have enough time for research, because we had to avoid sabotage," referring to the protesters.
Japanese officials also said the fleet spotted fewer minke whales than they had in the same area two years ago. Officials, however, stopped short of concluding there were fewer whales.
"We have to wait for a scientific analysis to determine whether the number is in decline or not," said Shigeki Takaya, a fisheries agency official in charge of whaling.
Research, or Commerce?
Anti-whaling activists cheered the results of their efforts to block the hunt.
But Junichi Sato, whaling project leader for the environmental group Greenpeace, said even the reduced hunt killed too many whales.
"It is still above the 400 or so they caught about three years ago," he said. "So it's a lot compared with several years ago."
Although it is conducted in the name of research, Japan's hunt provides supermarkets and upscale restaurants with the leftover whale meat.
Critics therefore charge that the country's whaling under the research exemption is just commercial whaling in disguise and demand it be stopped.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand's representative to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), last month called scientific whaling a "blank check."
"Any government can engage in it and can take an unlimited number of whales. That makes an absurdity of the whole treaty," he told National Geographic News.
The program has come under increasing international pressure in recent years as Japan has expanded its catch.
For example, this season the fleet had planned to kill 50 endangered humpback whales in the Antarctic for the first time in decades. Japan abandoned that plan last December in the face of protests by the United States and other governments.
And despite reported efforts to recruit poorer nations to back its position in the IWC, Japan has so far failed to win enough votes to have the commission strike down the commercial whaling ban.
Japan has long argued that the whaling ban should only apply to endangered species.
It also accuses the West of hypocrisy for criticizing current Japanese whaling after American and European whalers nearly wiped out the marine mammals in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Japanese have a long history hunting whales, and whale meat was widely eaten in the lean years after World War II.
The meat has plunged in popularity in today's prosperous Japan and is only eaten regularly in some small coastal communities.
After a special IWC meeting last month, New Zealand's Palmer had hinted that Japan may be ready to deal, giving up whaling in the Southern Hemisphere in exchange for limited hunts near these coastal regions.
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