Five small boats set out from Japan’s northern port of Kushiro on Monday with a simple aim: to find and kill minke whales. By 5 p.m., they had their first catch, according to activists following them. The ships would go on to catch another, Kyodo News Agency reported. Japan’s whalers hope to catch and kill hundreds more whales by the end of the year.
The hunt marked the official resumption of Japan’s commercial whaling industry after 31 years — and, with it, new controversy about the country’s insistence on whaling, despite concerns about cruelty and conservation, and amid dwindling consumer demand for whale meat.
On Sunday, Japan officially left the International Whaling Commission (IWC), an international organization that seeks to help conserve whales in the wild, which Japan had joined in 1951.
The IWC placed a moratorium on commercial whale hunting in 1982. After years of disputes, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in December that it intended to leave the organization, claiming that it was not fulfilling its mandate to find a balance between preserving the whale population and allowing a sustainable whaling industry.
In previous years, Japanese whalers had continued to kill whales in the Antarctic Ocean and the Southern Hemisphere in the name of scientific research. Though Japan said the practice was designed to help determine whale quotas, it still saw whale meat sold off for food afterward.
But with the official restart of commercial whaling, Japanese boats will now hunt in the country’s territorial waters.
“‘Today, we bore witness to the first victim of Japan’s new era of commercial whaling; with the sad, slumped carcass of a minke whale being bought to shore,” said Juliet Phillips, a campaigner with Environmental Investigation Agency, who followed the hunt in Kushiro.
Japan’s Fisheries Agency has said that the catch quota through the end of this year was set at 227 whales, a figure lower than the 333 that Japan hunted in the Antarctic in recent years. The quota includes 52 minke wales, as well as 150 Bryde’s whales and 25 sei whales.
Humane Society International’s President Kitty Block said that the new quota showed only that Japan had entered a new era of “pirate whaling.”
“Abandoning its decades-long charade of harpooning whales under the guise of science, it has revealed a terrible truth — that these gentle ocean giants are being slaughtered for no legitimate reason at all,” Block said.
Though Japan has pledged to use IWC-approved methods for killing whales, Humane Society International said there are no humane ways to kill a whale and that as slow breeding creatures who lead long lives, whales are “extremely vulnerable” to over-exploitation.
Japan’s commercial whaling industry dates from the 19th century. It became a prominent force in the country after Imperial Japan’s defeat in World War II, when whale provided cheap protein for a rapidly growing country.
However, demand for the meat had slumped even before the whaling ban was imposed, with government data showing consumption down from around 200,000 tons in the 1960s to around 5,000 tons in recent years.
Japan’s research whaling program had continually lost money and relied on government subsidies. Some commercial whalers are unsure if there is a big enough market for whale meat for their industry to survive.
One whaler who left port Monday, 40-year-old Takashi Takeuchi, told reporters that he “felt uneasy” about the future of commercial whaling in Japan, Kyodo reported.
The dead whales in Kushiro were greeted with celebration by locals, as well as those in Shimonoseki in southwestern Japan, another whaling industry town that also happens to be in Abe’s electoral constituency.
Shimonoseki had been a boom town during the peak whaling years but has struggled in the years since.
The return of commercial whaling was a “milestone in the history of Shimonoseki,” Mayor Shintaro Maeda told reporters, according to the Asahi Shimbun.