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Whale Wars Is Japan killing whales at sustainable levels?

posted: 05/15/12
by: Jessika Toothman
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Two minke whales are seen before dismantlement at a fishery processing factory in Japan on Sept. 13, 2004. Minke whales are listed as a species of "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning they are not considered threatened or in need of direct conservation measures at this time.
AP Photo/Kyodo News
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Whales played a big role during and after World War II in keeping the Japanese people from starving. Consequently, the marine mammals were hauled from the sea in huge numbers. Compare, for example, the hauls from 1962 and 2001. In 1962, during the heyday of commercial whaling, 230,000 metric tons of whale meat ended up on Japanese dinner plates. In 2001, when scientific permits were issued to hunt some 500 to 600 whales, that number was a meager 1,803 metric tons — with 70 metric tons left unsold, according to the Independent. Clearly, the pressure on whale populations has been eased greatly since the zenith of international whaling; it's a good thing, too, since all that overfishing sent many whale species into a tailspin.

The Magnificent Minke

Other species' numbers suffered less, though, and these days, the main species of whale that has Japanese whalers whipping out their harpoons is the minke whale. In 2010, the whalers received scientific permits to kill nearly 1,000 minke whales, although possibly due to interference from Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, they only managed to haul in a little more than 500, according to BBC News.

But whales, like most marine life, are patently difficult to count (population tracking is one of the stated research goals of Japan's Fisheries Agency), so obviously, there's a lot of elasticity in the estimates. For example, in the case of Southern Hemisphere minke whales in particular, proposed figures are all over the map, ranging from 380,000 or 510,000 all the way to 760,000 or even 1,400,000. Get the idea?

The Aboriginal Component

Of course the Japanese aren't the only people toting harpoons — a handful of other nations practice occasional whaling with scientific permits (and without, in the case of Norwegians). Groups of aboriginals are also allowed to hunt whales, although they have much smaller quotas. Greenlanders, for example, are permitted to hunt three species of whale: fin, minke and bowhead. But over the course of four years (from 2008 to 2012), they are authorized to haul in only 19 fin whales, two bowhead whales and about 200 minke whales each year.

The native people of Alaska and Chukotka (the Russian peninsula nestled near Alaska's Seward Peninsula) are also legally sanctioned to hunt the high seas. They're allowed to catch up to 280 bowhead whales over the four-year span — provided they don't kill more than 67 in any particular year. The people of Chukotka, as well as the native people in Washington State, can catch an additional 620 gray whales, although no more than 140 in any given year. Aboriginal inhabitants of St. Vincent and the Grenadines are allowed to nab 20 humpback whales during the four-year period. Canadian natives also take sporadic cracks at whale hunting.

So is all this sustainable?

That's the million-dollar question, and chances are excellent the answer will vary depending on who you ask. For its part, the International Whaling Commission is waiting on better data before making any definitive pronouncements. The group has population studies underway, since most of its numbers (which were already extremely rough estimates) are woefully out-of-date. For example, during a multi-year study conducted by the IWC in the late '80s, minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere (a distinct population from their neighbors to the north) appeared to number more than 700,000. But more recently, some scientists have started putting those figures much lower, perhaps only half that amount. The effects of whaling may certainly be one component of why the numbers have dropped, but according to the Independent, many suspect global warming is also a culprit as krill-happy waters around Antarctica's coastline shrink as the continent slowly melts into the sea.

So, say those minke whales were more dutiful about sending in their census forms, and we found out they actually number around 400,000 — that's still a pretty high number compared to the populations of other calendar favorites like pandas, tigers or even other whale species. And while the Japanese seem to not be making a huge dent in the overall whale population at the moment, it does beg the question, exactly how long, and under what guidelines, can they sustainably keep this up?

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