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Japan’s “Scientific Whaling”, much more than whales

Several factors related to the aggressive whaling policy of Japan in Antarctica should send alert signals to governments and civil society organizations about the real intentions of the Asian government in one of the most strategic regions with potential territorial and natural resources conflicts.

On December 7th, three ships of the Japanese whaling fleet, led by the Yushin Maru, sailed from the port of Shimonoseki towards the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary to capture 900 Antarctic minke whales and 50 Endangered fin whales under the alleged purpose of conducting “scientific research”.

The characteristics of the fleet, sailing dates and operational plans remain a mystery. The Japanese government justifies this secrecy citing security reasons. However, this type of information should be public since whales are a natural patrimony that does not belong to the government of Japan.

Whaling Industry Receives Recovery Funds Despite Crisis

On September 30th Japanese press reported that its government would increase by almost 600 percent the annual budget given to the whaling program in Antarctica to strengthen the security of the whaling fleet. In 2010 the fleet returned home with less than 20 percent of the self-granted catch quota after it ended the season earlier arguing that Sea Shepherd threatened the safety of its operations. In order to make this substantial budget increase, the government announced it would use public money from Japanese taxpayers that were originally intended to rebuild the country.

The announcement produced the immediate opposition of Japanese civil society. More than a dozen organizations, including Japan’s Environmental Lawyers Federation, the Association for Protection of Marine Communities and the Whale Action Network, sent a strong message to the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, denouncing the use public funds originally intended for rebuilding of the country to “to conduct scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean according to the original plan.” The letter, which was later joined by a dozen Latin American organizations, including the Cetacean Conservation Center and the Ecoceanos Center of Chile, also states that the use of these funds creates inevitable questions about the vested interests of the government of Japan in prolonging “the dying whaling program with taxpayer money.”

Officers of the Japan Fisheries Agency (JFA) came out quickly to defend the government’s decision saying that the money will go to support the whaling industry and some communities that were affected by the earthquake and tsunami of last March. They added that by returning with a “full load” [of whales] they would be able to revive the community of Ayukawa, the only whaling vicinity in the east coast of Ojika peninsula which was destroyed in March that used to have only one whaling station. However, the funds requested by the JFA clearly specify that the final destination of the money is to “increase the safety of the whaling fleet and allow stable operation of the season in Antarctica”. Similarly, the statements of JFA officials evidence the true commercial nature of the so-called “scientific whaling” and confirm once more the illegality of these operations.

Following these disconcerting statements the response of the Japanese civil society was immediate. On December 2nd several organizations urged their authorities to review the use of public funds in the maintenance of the whaling industry, in a strong and compelling public sign of opposition to the Japanese government’s whaling policy.

“Scientific whaling”, Strategy for the Expansion and Militarization of Antarctica?

After tripling the government subsidy and securing a new “scientific whaling” season in Antarctica, the spokesman of the Japanese Coast Guard said in the media that a decision was made “to strengthen security as never before” and to “have the greater protection in history”, which “will serve to deter” environmental groups. This would include the deployment of an undetermined number of Coast Guard officers onboard the whaling fleet, unspecified security equipment and even a patrol vessel of the JFA that on its sides reads in giant letters “Government of Japan.” This is another clear example of the implementation of an aggressive expansionist policy of Japan in Antarctic waters, which now takes the form of a government/corporate enterprise.

The lack of transparency of the government of Japan regarding its safety measures was one of the concerns expressed by more than sixty Latin American, Caribbean and international organizations in a letter sent on October 25 to their commissioners (Buenos Aires Group) at the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The Southern Ocean is governed under the Antarctic Treaty which designates it as an area for peace, international cooperation and free of weapons. A whaling program that does not even have the support of Japanese civil society now threatens all this. The call made by Latin American organizations is concerning considering that most of the money derived from the reconstruction fund towards the whaling program will be used to strengthen the security of the whaling fleet, setting a dangerous precedent on how future conflicts will be addressed in the Antarctic Treaty area.

However, this aspect has been completely ignored by governments, including countries with interests and claims in Antarctica. The Buenos Aires Group issued a joint statement after the departure of the fleet, condemning “scientific whaling” and urging the Government of Japan to end whaling operations carried out “in a sanctuary that was established by the IWC precisely to protect whales.”

Similarly, no government has challenged and/or publicly demanded the Government of Japan to provide relevant information about the type of patrol vessel, officers and characteristics of the safety equipment that will operate in the Southern Ocean. Although the IWC has adopted several resolutions on safety at sea, the government of Japan uses them to gain support for their offensive whaling expansion in Antarctica.

While governments and civil organizations keep silent about use of military personnel and elements in the Antarctic Treaty area, Japan continues to implement strategic measures aimed at getting rid of any opposition to their whaling operations in order to return home with “a full load [of whales]” to revitalize commercial whaling. This was evident last Friday when the media announced that the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) and the whaler conglomerate Kyodo Senpaku, filed a lawsuit in a Federal Court in Washington (USA) that seeks to prevent Sea Shepherd to participate in maritime activities. It should be recalled that in 2009 the United States, a country that has been supportive to Japan’s whaling policy in recent years, sympathized with the idea of taking action against the environmental group if they found violations under U.S. law.

Dark Future for Whales on the White Continent

While the opposition to “scientific whaling” is almost unanimous worldwide, convictions, lawsuits and diplomatic protests have not had any impact on Japan’s voracious whaling policy in the Southern Ocean.

The lack of concrete and effective actions – including but not limited to – the adoption of trade sanctions and a reform of the IWC Convention, have allowed the Japanese government to trespass legal and ethical limits that not only threaten the whales but also the governance of the Southern Ocean, the principles of the Antarctic Treaty, the interests of Latin American countries and the urgent needs of the Japanese people after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Summarizing, the actions taken by the Japanese government to ensure the 2012 “scientific whaling” season in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary, it could be concluded that the triple disaster of March 2011 has been used to implement an offensive policy that includes the deviation of tax payer funds originally reserved for the rebuilding of the country towards the whaling industry, undermining Antarctica as a zone of peace and free of weapons, and restricting or even eliminating basic rights recognized by the United Nations as the right to peaceful demonstrations.

The growing opposition within Japan to its government whaling policies, the systematic decrease in whale meat consumption and the recent historical stockpile of more than six thousand tons of meat, among others, clearly shows that the real interest of the Japanese government is to defend a small but powerful economic elite associated with its fishing industry to consolidate its dominion in the rich waters of the Southern Ocean, even by aggressive measures, and not the actual interests and needs of the Japanese people.

In this context there is an urgent need for Southern hemisphere countries, especially those with direct interests and responsibilities in Antarctica and their related ecosystems, to implement effective precautionary policies to stop Japan’s provocative whaling policy before it is too late.

By: Elsa Cabrera, executive director Centro de Conservación Cetecea and Juan Carlos Cardenas, executive director, Centro Ecoceanos.

Sources: Courier MailAssociated PressJapan Real TimePrensa LatinaUnivisión NoticiasThe GuardianThe Sydney Morning HeraldABC NewsLa RegiónM&CWikileaksMinisterio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile