The Japanese government announced last year that it would increase its annual kill to about 850 whales, mainly from the South Pacific population of Minke whales (see photos).
Meanwhile, environmental activists have dogged the Japanese whaling fleet, and groups like Greenpeace have launched letter campaigns and threatened to blacklist seafood companies associated with the whaling activities.
Now Nissui and the four other seafood firms say they will transfer their whaling-related holdings to public organizations, effectively removing private interest in whaling activities.
Greenpeace's Hocevar sees the development as a death knell for the industry.
"There is no future left for whaling, certainly no room for expansion, when even the large seafood companies are not interested in being associated with whaling anymore," he said.
The Japanese government, however, says whale meat carries great cultural significance among the nation's people.
Officials there said the whaling activities would continue and that the same number of animals would be killed each year.
"The transfer of the shares in the whaling firm will not affect our policies at all," Hideki Moronuki, an official in charge of whaling for Japan's Fisheries Agency, told the AFP news agency.
"Rather, we welcome the move," Moronuki said. "From now on, whaling will be regarded as something backed by all of Japan, not just a particular group in the private sector."
It's unclear, however, what impact the seafood companies' decision to pull out of the whaling business will have on the practice's commercial future.
Anti-whaling activists say the demand for whale meat in Japan has dwindled, especially among young people.
What's more, Hocevar says, the organizations taking over the shares aren't as well equipped as the private firms to process whale catches on a large scale.
Nissui has the capacity to produce 10 to 20 million cans of whale meat per year, according to Hocevar.
"The real question is whether Japanese public organizations can justifyor even have the capacityto can, market, and sell whale meat in that quantity," he said. "It seems unlikely."
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