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Whale Wars Why does Japan sell meat from research whaling?

posted: 05/15/12
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A woman shops by a freezer selling whale meat products at a fish market in Tokyo on Jan. 8, 2009. While Japan's whaling program keeps specialty markets and restaurants alive, it continues to draw blunt public criticism from neighboring governments, protests from environmental groups and the ire of whale-lovers worldwide.
AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara
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Most of the whales captured by Japanese research whalers can expect some of their tastier portions to come face-to-face with a dinner plate in the not-too-distant future. Critics point their fingers at this practice, deeming the scientific permitting process a thinly veiled excuse for overt commercial fishing operations. But the fact is that whalers, whatever their true motivation, are required by law to make as much use of their ostensible research subjects as they can.

The Law of the Sea

The International Whaling Commission, which dictates whaling regulations worldwide, set this rule in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, drafted in 1946. It took until 1986 to restrict legal whaling practices to scientific and limited aboriginal whaling, but even back in the '40s, the IWC wanted to make one thing perfectly clear: If you're going to catch whales, don't let them go to waste.

It did not, however, feel the need to put this command into crystal clear language, judging by the cryptic passage in question:

"Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the overnment by which the permit was granted."

So, after the Japanese whalers make off with all the whale organs they intend to study (ear plugs, ovaries, the stomach and that sort of thing), they do their best to sell the rest, fulfill the terms of the commission's rules and, ideally, turn a profit while they're at it.

Show Me the Money

So where do the profits from the whale meat sales go? Well, it's pretty much a closed loop. Most of the profits help foot the bill for more whaling. In 2001, for example, whale meat totaling 1,803 metric tons was sold after the season ended, and 70 metric tons went unsold, according to the Independent. That might seem like a lot, but when you consider that in 1962 — a peak year for whale hunting — some 230,000 metric tons of meat made its way into hungry Japanese tummies, it helps put things into perspective. While the Japanese still hunt whales, they do so with much less zeal than they did in the past.

And when it comes to actual money, according to Japan Today and Makoto Ito, the managing director of Kyodo Senpaku (the company that performs the whale hunts), the entire whaling operation doesn't really turn much of a profit. He said it costs between about $65 to $75 million a year — with the government kicking in about $5 million and the rest funded by whale meat sales. They claim to barely break even.

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