Japanese whalers embarked July 1 on their first commercial hunt in 31 years, after the country withdrew from the international governing body that has essentially banned the practice. Now Tokyo must reckon with foreign anger over a controversial business that has not yet shown it can even survive without government support.
Japan now allows catches of minke, Bryde's and sei whales within its territorial waters and its exclusive economic zone. The country set a total catch quota of 227 for this year, using the method adopted by the International Whaling Commission in 1994.
While Japan has now ended whaling for research purposes in the Antarctic Ocean and elsewhere, the resumption of outright commercial whaling is expected to draw harsher criticism from foreign organizations and countries opposed to the practice altogether. Tokyo should thoroughly explain its position in order to keep the backlash from affecting other maritime industries and its diplomatic relationships.
The Fisheries Agency will station personnel in whaling hubs and on ships to oversee hunts and ensure the rules are followed, as well as observe by satellite to prevent vessels from straying into international waters. Such precautions are a matter of course given the foreign scrutiny the industry will face. The international community will not overlook violations of the sort seen in bluefin tuna fishing, where quotas were frequently exceeded.
Maintaining cooperation with the IWC will be essential for Japan even after its withdrawal, as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that whaling be conducted through an international organization. Japan plans to provide data from its whale hunts to the IWC's Scientific Committee and to participate in general meetings as an observer.
Despite the return of commercial whaling, the government intends to continue paying subsidies to whalers for the time being. But the industry must become able to stand on its own feet.
The price of whale meat, previously determined by the government based on the cost of research hunts, will now be decided by market forces. Tokyo insists demand has not waned, but the past three decades have seen a rise in supply of competing meats like beef and pork as well as a decline in the number of distributors that carry whale meat.
Whalers will need to proceed with these market shifts in mind. If they continue to rely on subsidies, the rebirth of commercial whaling in Japan will prove little more than a pipe dream.