Japanese Firms Quit Whaling

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
April 3, 2006
The five Japanese fishing companies that owned the nation's
whaling fleet recently announced that they're getting out of the
whaling business.

Anti-whaling organizations called the announcement a "victory" for their movement.

"This is an important milestone as we continue our work to end whaling once and for all," said John Hocevar, an oceans specialist with activist group Greenpeace, who is based in Austin, Texas.

Nissui, Japan's second largest marine products company, and four other firms jointly owned whaling company Kyodo Senpaku. This business operated the six-ship whaling fleet on behalf of the Institute of Cetacean Research under the authority of the Japanese government.

In a press release issued on March 24 by Kyodo Senpaku, all five firms announced they will donate their shareholdings to public organizations, including the government-backed research institute.

The Japanese government, meanwhile, promised to continue its controversial annual whale hunt.


Environmentalists say Japan's whale-hunting activities are cruel and may drive rare species to extinction.

The hunt has pitted Japan (see map) against political the United States, the European Union, Australia, and other allies.

A global moratorium on whaling was agreed to by most international governments in 1986. Using a loophole in that ban, Japanese fishers have continued to kill whales under an allowance for scientific research.

But the island nation's officials make no secret of the fact that most of the meat ends up in restaurants and grocery stores.

Whaling proponents have campaigned aggressively to have the moratorium lifted, arguing that whale populations have recovered to sustainable levels during the ban.

(Read "Commercial Whaling Ban Holds—For Now.")

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.

Pressing On

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 justify—or even have the capacity—to can, market, and sell whale meat in that quantity," he said. "It seems unlikely."

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