The past several weeks have seen a considerable amount of media attention over the decision by Japan to curtail its annual Antarctic whale hunt ahead of schedule. This has been due in no small part to the actions of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in disrupting the Japanese whale fleet's activities through harassment and intervention. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been dogging the Japanese fleet for many years while the island nation hunted whales under a "whale research" loophole in the regulations put forth by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
I have gone on record as not being an advocate of the kind of attention-grabbing, eco-terrorist techniques employed by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I believe that it polarizes the opposing parties and does not pave a way for reasonable negotiations - which, like it or not, is where the necessary economic and regulatory change comes about. But credit where credit is due. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's efforts this season, while not as dramatic as in past seasons (with rammed ships, arrests, and calls for international prosecution), succeeded in reducing Japan's catch this year from an anticipated 850 minke whales and 50 fin whales to just 170 and 2, respectively. The Society deserves a hardy pat on the back.
The big question is: What next?
What will be Japan's strategy for 2012? This is a nation whose government and whaling industry is smarting and feeling very defensive over their cultural predilection toward whaling (indeed, toward commercial fishing in general) and their sense of national pride and indignation regarding verbal (and in the case of Sea Shepherd, physical) intervention from foreigners. One mustn't think that, based on this year's curtailed whaling season, Japan will be willing to throw in the towel.
However, there are several social and economic factors at work that may be pressuring the governing forces in Japan to begin to re-evaluate their position regarding whaling. In a recent article in Inter Press Service (IPS), Suvendrini Kakuchi reported,
"Despite campaigns to increase the sale of whale meat from minke whales, the local market has reported a reduction of 30 percent in 2010, according to the Tokyo-based Minato Newspaper quoting the publicly funded whaling company Koyodo Senpaku.
Whale meat is popular among older consumers in the sixties and above whose diet soon after World War II relied on whale as a protein.
But a 2008 September survey conducted by an independent organization under a request by Greenpeace Japan conservationists indicates that 70 percent of people between the ages of 15 to 39 years have not eaten whale meat.
The Japanese media has reported that 4,000 tonnes of excess whale meat was frozen and stored in warehouses in 2009."
Japan's government and regulatory agencies are inclined to maintain the cultural and historical status quo, but as younger generations begin to view whale consumption differently from generations past, that is producing some harsh economic realities that the industry will need to confront.
This provides a window of opportunity for delicate, non-combative diplomacy exercised by conservation groups, international agencies and individual countries. These forces have an opportunity to discuss with Japan the merits of sustainability, tighter fishery (and whaling) management, and perhaps work together on economic issues like shifting more resources towards developing, say, more environmentally efficient aquaculture.
Make no mistake, there is a tremendous opportunity here and there are even forces within Japan that are pressuring for a change. Some local governments are looking into establishing restricted or limited fishing as a means of maintaining sustainability of both the industry and marine species.
"The decision to call back the Japanese whaling fleet is based on low whale meat consumption locally, and other evidence that shows the industry is not sustainable," Prof. Toshio Katsura, marine biologist at Mie University told IPS.
But our response now must be a judicious one. Japan's whaling industry has sustained a serious blow this season and rather than gloat, we must carefully negotiate with the country's old guard, who are still very much in power both politically and commercially, to find ways to save face and set a new course in marine resource management.
Read the IPS article on Japan's whaling policy.