Leiden Law Blog

Japanese whaling: ‘scientific research’ peer-reviewed

Japanese whaling: ‘scientific research’ peer-reviewed

Hunting the hunters: whaling is out of date

Earlier this month, Japanese whale hunters collided with anti-whaling activists in an effort to stop the seasonal, and highly controversial, hunt for whales. In Arctic waters south of Australia, the captain of a vessel of the Sea Shepherd group reported that a Japanese harpoon ship tried to damage the activists’ vessel. After a rough few hours Sea Shepherd gave up its pursuit, giving the whaling fleet free passage for the time being.

The government of Japan called on the Netherlands, where the Sea Shepherd ships are registered, to take measures against what it calls ‘exceptionally dangerous acts of sabotage’ by Sea Shepherd. Japan hunts whales in the Arctic region under a ‘scientific research’ loophole in the international moratorium on whaling. Sea Shepherd, expecting the Japanese whaling ships in the area for the opening of the hunting season, had been lying in wait. Following the incident, the Dutch Inspectie Leefomgeving en Transport is investigating the incident, and while it does, let us reflect on Japan’s request.

The Japanese people used to like their whale steak

Japan has maintained for years that it needs an annual supply of whales for scientific purposes. To emphasise that claim, it has painted ‘Research’ on their whale-processing vessel. Inside the ship one may therefore expect to find state-of-the-art laboratories of the likes of ‘CSI’ and ‘Bones’, and bright, fresh-faced researchers pulled from universities, working against the clock to solve yet another mystery of life.

 In reality, the vessel is processing whale meat and oil, ready to be distributed in Japan as a delicacy on return to shore, although nowadays the food preferences of Japanese consumers leave most of the meat unsold. If there is scientific research taking place on board, under the auspices of the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research, it is incredibly outdated by international standards of marine-life preservation and sustainability. Who needs over ten thousand whales, caught in the past decades, to reach a conclusion on feeding ecology and population makeup? Besides, DNA in floating whale poop can tell researchers almost all they want to know.

So, is someone not adjusting to modern times?

Japan demands that action be taken by the Netherlands

Japan is addressing the Dutch: that’s us. As much as we value our ties with Japan, allow us to be supportive of alternatives to whaling. This season’s projected catch of 985 whales is no longer acceptable, given the knowledge the international community has developed about the seas as sensitive ecosystems with drastically declined whale numbers due to less available food, hunting and pollution.

The world doesn’t need Japan to drive down the numbers even further. Japan’s position on the matter is archaic. In a globalised world, it will no longer do to fend off critics by stating, as the Japan Whaling Association does, that attitudes toward animals are part of national cultures and that no nation should try to impose its attitude on others.

In the Netherlands, we have cows. We eat beef. If Japan’s annual whale hunt were entirely about whale steak, we could, as a befriended country, offer to send 6,000 of our finest cows, to be cared for and freely enjoyed for dinner in Japan. That way we would compensate for the loss of whale meat – who would want to see hungry faces at the dinner table – and that would be our response to the recurring skirmishes at sea.

But since whale meat is less and less on the menu in Japan and tons of frozen meat are left unsold, perhaps the continuing whale hunt really is what Japan says it is: part culture, and part (archaic) research. What answer do we have to this? Japan is stuck in tradition. It is not interested in peer review in matters of whale research. Can we really only hope that Japan’s younger generation will adjust course and adopt an international view of stewardship?

(Photo by Sea Shepherd, Marianna Baldo, aboard the Bob Barker)

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