Japanese whalers bring home 1st commercial catch in 31 years

TOKYO (AP) — Japanese whalers returned to port yesterday with their first catch after resuming commercial whaling for the first time in 31 years, achieving the long-cherished goal of traditionalists that is seen as largely a lost cause amid slowing demand for the meat and changing views on conservation.

A fleet of five boats left the northern Japanese port of Kushiro earlier Monday and brought back two minke whales.

A crane lifted them and slowly placed them on the back of a truck to be taken to a portside factory for processing.

It was the first commercial hunt since 1988, when Japan switched to what it called research whaling after commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Japan gave six months’ notice that it was withdrawing from the IWC, a move that took effect on Sunday.

The Fisheries Agency said the hunts will stay within the country’s exclusive economic zone, and the catch quota for the rest of this year will be 227 whales, fewer than the 637 that Japan hunted in the Antarctic and the northwestern Pacific in its research programme in recent years.

A whale is unloaded at a port in Kushiro, in the northernmost main island of Hokkaido. – AP

The announcement of the quota, originally planned for late June, was delayed until Monday in an apparent move to avoid criticism during this past weekend’s Group of 20 summit in Osaka.

As the boats left port, whalers, their families and local officials in two major whaling towns, Shimonoseki in southwestern Japan and Kushiro in the north, celebrated the fresh start, hoping for their safe return and a good catch. Shimonoseki is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s electoral constituency.

“We hope commercial whaling will be on track as soon as possible, contribute to local prosperity and carry on Japan’s rich whale culture to the next generation,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters in Tokyo.

Officials said the catch of the two minke whales was a nice surprise because they were not thought to be in the area and whalers were expecting yesterday’s trip to be only ceremonial.

Fisheries Agency officials said the whale meat will be auctioned at a local fish market tomorrow and later hit stores, mainly in the region but possibly in Tokyo.

Whalers are hoping for a special price for the historic meat that is higher than the average 2,000 yen per kilogramme (USD18 per 2.2 pounds) that their counterparts from Antarctic research whaling used to get.

While the resumption of commercial whaling was condemned by many conservation groups, others see it as a face-saving way to let the government’s embattled and expensive whaling programme gradually succumb to changing times and tastes.

Despite massive attention, tax money and political support from ruling party lawmakers, whaling in Japan involved only a few hundred people and accounted for less than 0.1 per cent of the total meat consumption in fiscal 2017, according to government data.