National Geographic News
Three minke whales dead on the deck of the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru inside a Southern Ocean sanctuary,

Three dead minke whales are shown on the deck of the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru.


Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published January 7, 2014

As reports of dead minke whales in the Southern Ocean circulate, the battle over Japanese whaling heats up in turbulent waters.

Video shot by an aircraft operated by the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and widely shared online appears to show three minke whales loaded onto the Nisshin Maru, a large whaling ship.

Sea Shepherd says a fourth whale was also seen being cut on the ship's deck.

The video, and Sea Shepherd's allegations, have caused an international stir.

New Zealand's government has condemned what it calls "pointless and offensive" whaling while disputing Sea Shepherd's claims that the Japanese fleet has been operating in New Zealand's territorial waters, in the Ross Sea in Antarctica.

The captain of Sea Shepherd's ship the Steve Irwin, Siddharth Chakravarty, told the media on Tuesday that the activists have since driven off the Japanese fleet from chasing whales in the Southern Ocean.

"We're returning back to the ice edge to stand guard," he said. "Should the whaling ships return again we'll be there to drive them out again from the sanctuary."

Chakravarty is referring to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, a 31-million-square-mile area around Antarctica that is officially off-limits to commercial whaling as part of a 1986 moratorium to which Japan is a signatory.

Due to what critics call a "loophole," countries are technically allowed to hunt a certain number of whales there for "scientific purposes."

The Japanese government says the minke whales are collected for that purpose.

Sea Shepherd disputes that, saying in a statement that the Japanese boats were operating within the sanctuary "in contravention of the 1986 global moratorium on commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research."

Whaling's Complicated Legal Status

The legal status of whaling is more intricate than the finest scrimshaw of Melville's day.

The signatories to the moratorium, known as the International Whaling Commission, together form a voluntary international body whose member nations agreed not to commercially hunt medium and large whales, including minke whales (smaller whales and dolphins are exempt and are still widely hunted).

In June, Australia and New Zealand sued Japan before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, asking the court to withdraw all permits for future whale hunts from the Japanese fleet. Arguments were held over the summer, and a decision is expected in the next few months.

During the proceedings, Australia and New Zealand dismissed Japan's claims that it was whaling for scientific purposes. The countries alleged that Japan was motivated by the opportunity to sell whale meat, which is legal in Japanese shops and restaurants.

"You don't kill 935 whales in a year to conduct scientific research. You don't even need to kill one whale to conduct scientific research," Bill Campbell, Australia's presenter at the court, told the 16-judge panel.

He was referring to Japan receiving permits last year to kill up to 935 Antarctic minkes, 50 fin whales, and 50 humpbacks.

Leah R. Gerber, a professor of marine biology at Arizona State University, told National Geographic that despite strong interest in ending the scientific whaling exemption from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and other members of the International Whaling Commission, the delegates have not been able to obtain a three-fourths majority to make the change.

Japan has convinced enough small island nations to vote its way by plying them with international aid, she said.

But even if the court does rule against Japan, "Japan is still going to find a way to whale," said Gerber, who has written extensively on whales and whaling.

"They will continue commercial whaling based on a sense of needing to plant a stake on marine resources," she says, "which are very important to their culture."

Japan's Ongoing Support of Whaling

Japan's support for whaling is not about economics, Gerber agues.

Because the market for whale meat in Japan is quite weak, and because the costs of operating a fleet, providing international aid to other International Whaling Commission nations, and paying for public relations efforts are high, whaling actually loses Japan money, she says.

A report released last February by the advocacy group International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) estimated that whaling has cost Japanese taxpayers $378 million since 1987.

"It's a very small fraction of the society who have any interest in consuming whales," says Gerber.

Efforts to improve the market by putting whale meat in school lunches have drawn criticism from parents, some of whom have complained that the flesh can be relatively high in toxic mercury. In 2011, the Japanese government tried to unload some of its stockpile of whale meat in a public auction, but only a quarter of it found a buyer.

According to a poll commissioned by IFAW in 2011, nearly 90 percent of Japanese adults had not bought whale meat in the previous 12 months. More than 50 percent of Japanese said they had no opinion on their country's whaling program, while 26.8 percent said they supported it and 18.5 percent were opposed to it.

So why does Japan still officially support whaling?

The Japan Whaling Association says on its website that minke whales in the Antarctic need "marine management" through scientific whaling and that the International Whaling Commission has enough regulations in place to allow sustainable harvest.

"Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers, and the English being asked to go without fish and chips," the site says. "Attitudes toward animals are a part of national cultures. No nations should try to impose their attitudes on others."

Gerber says polls show that Japanese young people are generally opposed to whaling, but that it remains a matter of "national pride" to some of those from older generations. "When these older people move out of positions of power and more enlightened people take over and start to negotiate, things will change," she says.

In an academic paper published in 2009 in the journal Japanese Studies, Japanese studies professor Midori Kagawa-Fox wrote that "reasons put forward by the [Japanese] government, such as the maintenance of its culture and the utilization of the whale resource, have not convinced Western nations of its legitimacy."

Kagawa-Fox, who grew up in Japan and teaches at the University of Adelaide in Australia, wrote that "commercial whaling [is] less about maintaining traditions than about providing opportunities to the vested interests of the Japanese 'Whaling Iron Triangle,'" which she identifies as "bureaucrats, politicians, and big business."

In 2001, Japan's then-commissioner of whaling, Masayuki Komatsu, embodied what some have described as a cultural defiance of the whaling taboo when he referred to minke whales as "cockroaches of the sea" in an interview in Australia.

In a later interview, he said what he meant was that "cockroach is plenty in its number and also reproduction is very rapid and big..."

Bold Activist Tactics

As anti-whaling nations have attempted to end the practice, battles between whalers and activists have become a regular occurrence in the Southern Ocean, where up to 1,000 minke whales are killed annually.

In spring 2010, this reporter toured the Steve Irwin and met with Sea Shepherd crew, including the group's colorful founder, Paul Watson, who is well known for his turns on the reality TV show Animal Wars on Animal Planet and for his role as one of the earliest members of Greenpeace.

"Hanging banners and taking pictures isn't going to save the whales, but kicking a-- is," Watson said then.

He founded Sea Shepherd in 1977, after he was voted off the board of Greenpeace.

Sea Shepherd has offices in Washington State and in Australia, and has been sending boats to confront whalers for more than 30 years, in ways that have attracted a lot of attention and a fair amount of criticism.

Sea Shepherd activists routinely position themselves between harpoons and marine mammals. They blast whaling vessels with water cannons, throw flash grenades, and try to cut ensnared animals free.

They have also thrown acid on captured whale carcasses, to make them less sellable.

The activists have been known to "scuttle" whaling ships in port by sinking them, and to ram whalers on the seas. The group claims that, despite decades of such tactics, they have not caused any human injuries, which they attribute to strict discipline and rules of engagement.

Still, whalers and various nations have often fought back.

Arrest warrants have been issued for Sea Shepherd leadership from Japan, Norway, and Costa Rica, with varying degrees of success.

New Zealander Pete Bethune, a Sea Shepherd captain, got two years in prison in Japan for the disputed sinking of the Ady Gil, a Sea Shepherd vessel that collided with a Japanese whaling vessel in January 2010 (each side blames the other as the aggressor). After a lengthy legal battle, the sentence was suspended after he had served five months.

In New York in spring 2010, Watson said he didn't mind that some people call him a "terrorist." "We represent the whales, tuna, and other creatures of the sea," he said. "If people support us, fine. If people disagree, then tough."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

Maggie C.
Maggie C.

Dear Mr. Howard,

Thank you for this interesting and informative article on Japanese whaling practices and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.  I enjoyed reading it and feel that I learned a lot from it.  I particularly appreciated your discussion of how whaling has historically been part of Japanese culture and still is for the older generation, even if the younger generations care less about it.  I had never considered that aspect of the issue before.

However, I think you left out some important information regarding the International Whaling Commission that would have helped your readers better understand the background behind the struggle between Japanese whalers and Sea Shepherd.  For example, what was the original reason for the agreement?  Was it because the medium and large whales are considered sentient?  Were some endangered?  And why does the agreement not apply to small whales?  What is the difference between medium to large and smaller whales that makes it acceptable to hunt the small ones but not the larger ones?

I would also have liked to know why the agreement is still in place, if some members do not adhere to it and if it is a voluntary agreement in the first place (does that mean Japan is only at fault because they are going against the agreement, whereas countries that are not part of the Commission would be justified in whaling?).  Furthermore, who enforces the rules laid down by the IWC?  I can't imagine that Sea Shepherd would be chosen by the IWC to carry out their goals, but from your article, it wasn't clear to me who would be.  I see from the IWC's website ( that their main duty is "to keep under review and revise as necessary the measures laid down in the Schedule to the Convention which govern the conduct of whaling throughout the world", but even from their website, I was unable to determine who enforces said measures.

Because the International Whaling Commission is such an important aspect of the conflict your article addresses, I think the article could have been enhanced by discussing it in more than a brief mention.  Nonetheless, I found your article informative and generally well done.  Thank you.

Jules Riviere
Jules Riviere

The japanese whaling industry  will not stop easily. Some  japanese people eat whale meat thus, they need to  catch them.

I  don´t know when mother  nature  will say:  Enough!!!

But it might  be  about two or three human generations,   ahead, when  she  will  start a   new  cycle of  mother  earth, killing all the human beings  and other species,,,

Enrique Romero
Enrique Romero

Whale hunting is wrong and making up laws or permits to suggest it is legal will not change that.  

Japan has typically been very smart as it relates to business.  By not ending whaling they are empowering consumers to vote with their pocketbooks.  Time to start buying more products from the non-whaling countries instead of Japan.

Enrique Romero
Enrique Romero

Whale hunting is wrong and making up laws to suggest it is legal will not change that.  Japan has typically been very smart as it relates to business.  By not ending whaling they are empowering consumers to vote with their pocketbooks.  Time to start buying more products from the non-whaling countries.

Ani MuX
Ani MuX

What most people don't realize is this issue didn't start with sea hippies throwing stink bombs at whaling boats on television. In fact, Japan's whaling industry has a long history of regulatory violations that dates back long before anything like Sea Shepherd ever existed.

Unfortunately, the author of the article has left out some important details. For example, Japan does not 'receive' permits to kill whales. The government of Japan ignores the International Whaling Commission and then issues its whalers permits. The IWC has repeatedly and specifically called on Japan to stop killing whales.

Historically, Japan's whalers have killed protected species, hunted out of season, killed undersized whales, hunted in off limits areas, exceeded quotas, and even went as far as to hire foreign poachers to kill more whales and smuggle the illegally gained meat back to Japan. So, nobody was surprised when the IWC set all commercial whaling quotas to zero and Japan continued killing whales anyway.

Australia's legal team made a convincing argument to the world court that Japan's whaling is not conducted for the purpose of scientific research and that Japan is in breach of its obligations as a signatory to the 1946 ICRW. The so-called 'research loophole' was only ever intended for limited use for critical research needs and NOT as an excuse for any country to simply ignore every restriction ever established by the commission.

The author has also made claims that the activists throw flash grenades at whales to scare them which is not correct. However, the whalers have thrown flash grenades (and more) at unarmed activists.

The author does correctly identify that Japan's whaling continues for the benefit of corrupt bureaucrats (amakudari) who expect to be rewarded with high paid jobs in the commercial whaling industry that is currently propped up by government funding. 

It's also accurate that demand for whale meat in Japan is pathetically low. If the government did not include whale meat in school lunches the fact is most Japanese children would not know the taste. In fact, Japan's government promotes whaling as if it were an ancient tradition of all Japanese people rather than a practice limited to certain coastal villages -- while obscuring the fact that other regions of Japan worshiped whales as gods of good fortune and never ate them. Regardless, Japan's whaling industry adopted Norwegian modern whaling methods, technology, ships, and even actual Norwegians as whalers at the start of the 20th century to mass produce whale oil for export for margarine production and lamp fuel in western countries. So much for tradition.

The International Whaling Commission voted to enact a moratorium on whaling in 1982 and Japan lost. The moratorium went into effect in 1986 and Japan continued killing whales anyway. The IWC established the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in 1994 and Japan continued killing whales anyway. The whales killed by Japan annually -- which include endangered fin whales, endangered sei whales, vulnerable sperm whales, rare Bryde's whales, common minke whales (many from the threatened J-stock), and Antarctic minke whales -- are protected by multiple IWC decisions. Japan is in breach of its obligations as a signatory to the 1946 ICRW to adhere to the decisions of the IWC in good faith.

Lorretta Rollinson
Lorretta Rollinson

Steve Irwin , the man that tired up crocodiles and then jumped all over them .

Ieyasu Tokugawa
Ieyasu Tokugawa

In the interests of maintaining credibility, you really ought to have mentioned that Japan's harvest of whales is both entirely legal and sustainable, and presents absolutely no threat to the viability of any whale stock whatsoever. 

Also, you should probably have made mention that the Sea Shepherd activist, Pete Bethune, was convicted of assault for burning a Japanese mariner with an acid projectile he fired at the whalers.

Also, Paul Watson has been on the run from the law for years and is currently facing very serious legal proceedings in the United States, which has branded his actions and those of Sea Shepherd to be violent piracy.

And all of this in the name of faux-conservation, to 'protect' an abundant species from a legal and sustainable harvest. Pity the not-as-cute species out there that are genuinely endangered.

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@Ani MuX Hi thanks for reading. I did clarify the part about the flash grenades. 

Rahul Nair
Rahul Nair

@Ieyasu Tokugawa"to 'protect' an abundant species from a legal and sustainable harvest" You will say its an abundant species until it comes under the endangered list. And when these species get completely wiped off from the world, what would be your reason as a supporter of this Whaling ? I guess it should be just because of its a not-as-cute species.

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@Ieyasu Tokugawa  Hi. The marine biologist I interviewed, Leah R. Gerber from Arizona State University, told me that she doesn't think people should be hunting any whales now, from a sustainability perspective. Whales have declined so much globally from their historic range, in many cases less than 1%, so she doesn't think one can make the case for "sustainable" hunting at this time.

John Foker
John Foker

@Ieyasu Tokugawa

Nonsense.  You ought to read the article.  Why have so many responsible nations declared the hunting should stop?  There is no justification for whale hunting especially in the sanctuary.  Utter nonsense that it is for research.  

And they continue to hunt dolphins, see The Cove, and the badly over-fished blue fin tuna.  Disgraceful.

L. Griffin
L. Griffin

@Ieyasu Tokugawa Just because an act is legal does not make it acceptable. Sustainable harvest?? i.e This post is not about harvesting corn. This article is about hunting and killing animals that have complex family structures and is quite different than crop harvesting. I do not agree with all  tactics of the Sea Shepherd activist but I do believe Japan is hiding behind this pretense of "scientific research". If Japan is going to murder whales, they should at least not be cowards about their conduct.

Ieyasu Tokugawa
Ieyasu Tokugawa

@L. Griffin

"Murder"? Now that's a bit silly.

And what exactly is a "complex family structure"? It sounds suspiciously to me like the kind of garbage that anti-whaling types throw up as an excuse to prohibit whaling in the absence of any scientifically-proven conservation argument. Much like all of that "sentient" nonsense.

Please, try to keep it rational and factual.

Steve Jones
Steve Jones

@Ieyasu Tokugawa @L. Griffin

The fact is the human species will wipe out most species in the name of culture and greed unless they are kept in check both legally and physically.

Why was there a moratorium on whaling to begin with? I believe because whaling nations couldn't keep keep themselves in check and verged on putting many species of whale into extinction.

We have to somehow get past this antiquated idea that all the planet is ours to harvest and try and live within our means. And for Christ's sake try and reduce our population.


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