Whale Wars How do the Japanese kill whales?

A Japanese whaling gunner swings around a one-ton harpoon shooter on a swivel to show how to take aim at a whale. Along with the global movement over the past few decades to ban whaling altogether, a lower profile but equally heated debate is simmering over how whales might be hunted in a more humane manner.
AP Photo/Chiaki Tsukumo

The fact that the Japanese kill whales raises the ire of many people, but conservationists are often especially critical of the suffering caused by the practice — and by what they consider to be an inhumane death.

The Dispute

The Japanese aren't as forthcoming about their whaling practices as other nations, which annually report information such as instantaneous death rates (IDR) and time to death (TTD) statistics to the International Whaling Commission. Japan's representatives at a 2009 meeting of the Working Group on Whale Killing Methods and Associated Welfare Issues said they took the issue seriously, but felt they were unduly criticized when they reported their numbers in past years.

The Japanese delegates said they were working to improve their animal killing methods and invest in better hunting weapons, although specific data to this effect is not widely circulated. The Japanese also said they still report their data to the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). However, that statement's accuracy is also a bit unclear, considering that Japan wasn't included in the National Progress Reports section of the 2009 NAMMCO Annual Report, although it's possible the data had yet to be released to the public at the time this article was written.

The Hunt

In one address, presented by Hajime Ishikawa of the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research at The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission's Workshop to Address the Problems of Struck and Lost in Seal, Walrus and Whale Hunting, we start to get a glimpse of Japan's whaling practices. According to Ishikawa, whaling missions typically consist of a handful of smaller catcher boats and one larger vessel that serves as a home base and research station. Each ship is equipped with one grenade harpoon cannon, along with two winches for hoisting whales aboard, one of which is equipped with a backup harpoon cannon in case the first one doesn't get a good shot.

The boats of course have whaling sonar systems, and when they come upon a whale they fire a 30-gram penthrite grenade-armed harpoon at it. If the kill isn't clean or the harpoon looks like it might become dislodged (resulting in a stuck and lost, or S&L, situation) the second harpoon cannon can fire off a round. Sometimes high-caliber rifles are used as secondary killing weapons, typically firing off .375 caliber ammunition.

The Catch

Ishikawa said that S&L rates were particularly high during the 1993/4, 1994/5 and 2001/2 whaling seasons; since then, the whaling fleet has increased efforts to bring down the numbers. Since the two main culprits are dislodged harpoons and broken lines, some of these strategies included:

  • Giving the gunner immediate feedback on his shot after each whale's necropsy so he begins to judge his shots better
  • Making greater use of the second harpoon
  • Winching the whales more carefully after they're hooked
  • Navigating more cautiously to avoid cutting the lines
  • Improving harpoon design to make them more effective

According to Ishikawa, educating crew members on the importance of these practices could have a big impact and motivational effect on their whaling efforts.

Despite the assertions that the fleet is improving its practices, the Japanese have still had their fair share of detractors over the years. For example, in a 1999 NAMMCO report covered by BBC News, Japan was only achieving a 30 percent instantaneous death rate, while Norway was up at 60 percent. Choppy seas were the reason cited for the discrepancy. Japanese grenades exploded inside the whales (ideal for delivering a quick and painless death) less than 50 percent of the time, compared to Norway's more than 90 percent success rate. It's unknown whether the equipment has improved significantly since then, although we do know that by the 2004/2005 season, the Japanese had made it up to a 45 percent IDR.

MORE: Japanese Whalers

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