TIME whaling

Japan Reduces Antarctic Whale Hunting Quota

Humpback whale in Antarctica
Humpback whale in Antarctica Getty Images

The policy will take effect for the 2015-2016 whaling season

Japan has cut its whale hunting quota down to 333 from 900, in response to international criticism over the practice, officials announced Tuesday.

“We will explain the new plan sincerely so as to gain understanding from each country,” said fisheries minister Koya Nishikawa, according to the Guardian.

The International Court of Justice ruled in March that Japan’s “research whaling” served as a front to allow the country to hunt and sell whale meat under a scientific exemption to international bans on hunting whales for commercial purposes. But the country maintains that it needs to hunt whales to set “safe levels of catch limits” and to determine the age of the population.

The new policy will take effect for the 2015-2016 whaling season. This year’s whaling season was canceled in response to the ICJ’s ruling.

[Guardian]

TIME Japan

Japan’s Annual Dolphin Hunt Has Resumed

Fishermen in wetsuits hunt dolphins at a cove in Taiji
Fishermen hunt dolphins at a cove in Taiji, western Japan, on Jan. 20, 2014 Adrian Mylne—Reuters

The slaughter made infamous in the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove is still happening

The Japanese coastal village of Taiji has begun its annual dolphin hunt again this month, CNN reports.

The hunt, which runs from September to March, has long been the focus of outrage among environmental activists and was even made into an Oscar-winning documentary in 2009 called The Cove.

However, locals in Taiji, a town in Wakayama prefecture with a population of 3,500, say that hunting dolphins and whales is crucial to the region’s economy.

They appear to have the support of the Wakayama prefectural government, which declined CNN’s request for an interview but referred them to a statement on its website that calls dolphins and whales a legitimate marine resource.

“Located far away from the centers of economic activity, the town has a 400-year history as the cradle of whaling, and has flourished over the years thanks to whaling and the dolphin fishery,” the statement says.

Environmental organizations like Sea Shepherd, which has been broadcasting a live feed of the hunts for the past five years and running a robust social-media campaign against them, say the dolphins are tortured and treated inhumanely before they are killed.

The dolphins are captured and killed using a method known as “drive hunting,” which involves boatmen banging metal poles to cause deafness and disorientation in the dolphins, who then swim away from the boats and straight into the killing cove.

“Once netted into the cove, the dolphins are literally wrangled and tethered, often sustaining bloody wounds … The dolphin hunters use large metal rods to penetrate the spinal cord,” said Melissa Sehgal, Sea Shepherd’s campaign coordinator for the Taiji project.

Sehgal said the dolphins do not die immediately but are left to bleed out or drown in their own blood, a practice she described as “barbaric.”

Although most of the marine mammals are killed and sold for meat, a few choice specimens are captured. Captive dolphins can reportedly fetch over $100,000 from aquariums.

Sea Shepherd estimates that over the past three hunting seasons, there have been nearly 2,600 dolphins killed and a little under 500 taken captive.

[CNN]

TIME Environment

California Blue Whales Are Making a Comeback

Blue whale
Getty Images

New study shows the marine mammal’s population in the Golden State is nearly back to pre-whaling levels

California’s endangered blue-whale population may not be so endangered after all, according to a study released Friday.

New research published in the journal Marine Mammal Science found the state’s current population of the aquatic mammal is nearly as high as before the practice of whaling became popular.

“It’s a conservation success story,” said Cole Monnahan, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at the University of Washington, in a statement.

The International Whaling Commission banned the hunting of blue whales for commercial purposes in 1966, after which whaling has only been carried out illegally. Other causes of death also include pollution, shipping and getting accidentally caught up in other fishing.

Blue whales are the world’s largest known animals, growing to nearly 100 ft. in length and weighing over 200 lb.

The study’s revelations concern California’s blue-whale population rather than the total number in the North Pacific, which has been known to be about 2,200 for some time now, although researchers did find that previous estimates of the pre-whaling population might have been inaccurate.

Scientists always assumed the pre-whaling population was much larger, but the authors of Friday’s study estimate the current population is up to 97% of historical figures. They arrived at this conclusion by using historical data to estimate the number of whales caught between 1905 and 1971.

“Our findings aren’t meant to deprive California blue whales of protections that they need going forward,” Monnahan added. “California blue whales are recovering because we took actions to stop catches and start monitoring. If we hadn’t, the population might have been pushed to near extinction — an unfortunate fate suffered by other blue-whale populations.”

The one problem the massive marine mammals still face is being hit by ships, with at least 11 blue whales being struck off the West Coast last year. But Monnahan and his co-authors say this won’t affect the population’s stability.

TIME Japan

Japan Is Planning to Resume Whale Hunts

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Visits New Zealand
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the media after a traditional Maori welcome at Government House and talks with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key on July 7, 2014, in Auckland. Fiona Goodall—Getty Images

Trade talks turned to whale rights in New Zealand as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touted a revival of his nation's "scientific" whaling program

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told his New Zealand counterpart, John Key, during trade talks in Auckland that Japan intends to resume whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Key said he was told of Tokyo’s plans to build a scientific whaling program that is in line with the International Court of Justice’s recent guidelines, but made his position clear that all whale hunting should cease, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “New Zealand’s view is there is no place for whaling, scientific or otherwise,” said Key.

In March, Australia and New Zealand won a legal case against Japan’s government-subsidized whaling program in Antarctica. The court found that the scheme was carried out predominantly for commercial purposes, instead of scientific research as claimed.

Abe dodged reporters’ questions on whether or not Japan will resume whaling. “We will abide by the verdict of the International Court of Justice, but in any case there are different positions in regard to whaling,” he said.

[Australian Broadcasting Corporation]

TIME whaling

Japanese Whaling Ban Won’t End the Whale Wars

A photo released in 2008 shows a whale being dragged on board a Japanese ship after being harpooned in Antarctic waters.
A photo released in 2008 shows a whale being dragged on board a Japanese ship after being harpooned in Antarctic waters AFP/Getty Images

The International Court of Justice has ruled that Japan will no longer be permitted to hunt whales in the southern Pacific under the dubious pretense of scientific research. But the battle over whaling isn't over

The science in Japan’s “scientific” whaling program has always been a little, well, questionable. Commercial whaling is essentially illegal for all nations that remain part of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Norway and Iceland, two countries that continue to whale, get around the IWC’s 1986 moratorium by simply rejecting it. Japan, which is still a member of the IWC, has sidestepped the moratorium for years through subtler means, establishing a research program that allows the country to kill 3,600 minke whales since the studies began in 2005. Exactly what scientific information Japan’s whaling fleet is gathering through legal slaughter has never been clear — though what’s not in doubt is the destination of the whale meat taken in the hunt, most of which ends up in the handful of restaurants and markets in Japan that still serve whale.

If a scientific whaling program sounds like an oxymoron to you, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) apparently agrees. On Monday the ICJ ordered a temporary halt to Japan’s Antarctic whaling program, ruling that the country had failed to provide any scientific justification for its whaling. “The court concludes that the special permits granted Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales … are not ‘for purposes of scientific research,’” presiding judge Peter Tomka said, reading the court’s ruling on a case originally brought in 2010 by the government of Australia. The program, he said, “cannot be justified.”

The Japanese government obviously disagrees with the decision, but Foreign Ministry spokesperson Noriyuki Shikata told reporters that Japan would “abide by the ruling of the court” — meaning that for now, at least, Japan’s annual Antarctic hunt is off. For environmentalists who have fought Japanese whaling for years in international courts, the court of public opinion and sometimes on the oceans itself — as seen in the reality-TV show Whale WarsMonday’s decision was a moment to celebrate. Former Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett, who originally launched the suit when his government was still in office, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that Antarctic waters would become a true sanctuary for whales:

I’m absolutely over the moon, for all those people who wanted to see the charade of scientific whaling cease once and for all. I think [this] means without any shadow of a doubt that we won’t see the taking of whales in the Southern Ocean in the name of science.

The court’s ruling doesn’t mean that all Japanese whaling will immediately cease. The country has a smaller scientific program in the northern Pacific that will likely now be challenged under the same grounds. The court also left the door open for Japan to resume scientific whaling if it can redesign its program, as Tokyo has claimed it needs data to monitor the impact of whales on its fishing industry. And Japan has always held out the possibility that it could simply withdraw from the IWC altogether, so that it would no longer be bound by the commission’s decisions.

Whaling has never been just about whaling in Japan. Though some coastal towns in Japan have hunted whales for centuries — I visited one such village, Oshika, back in 2005 — Japan only became a whaling power in the wake of World War II, when some of its decommissioned naval vessels were converted into whaling ships and when U.S. occupation officials encouraged the harvesting of whales as a cheap form of protein. The drive to keep whaling today has much less to do with a taste for whale meat — which has long since waned — than it does with the government’s worry that any limit on whaling could set a precedent for Japan’s far more vital commercial fishing industry. Tokyo is right to worry — bluefin tuna, which can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, are highly endangered as well.

There’s also the reality that hunting is just one of many threats that whales face today. Whales can be killed accidentally as bycatch, poisoned by pollution, even driven crazy by noise from ships. And like nearly every other species on the planet, whales are threatened by climate change — especially species like bowhead and beluga that live in the rapidly warming Arctic. But on a day when environmentalists are still reeling from the dire predictions in the latest U.N. climate change report, today’s ruling is a rare glimmer of good news.

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