All eyes on Japan's next move on whale hunting

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 February, 2011, 12:00am

It is curious trivia whether whales blink like we do or just close their eyes occasionally. But there is no question that their human predators have blinked in the latest confrontation at sea with anti-whaling protesters. Japan's whaling fleet has raised the white flag and turned tail for home with barely a fifth of this season's targeted catch.

Commercial whaling is a bloody and dangerous business. The mission of sabotaging it in inhospitable Southern Ocean waters can be, too. Militants shadowing whaling ships pelt them with stink bombs and try to foul their propellers. The whalers retaliate with high-powered hoses and sonic weapons. Collisions and ugly incidents are ever-present risks. Testament to the danger is the statement by Japan's fisheries minister that the harpoon ships have been recalled 'to ensure the safety of the whaling crew amid the continuing harassment by anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd'.

No species conservation issue has inspired such international diplomatic sparring and activism. A 24-year moratorium on commercial whaling was largely ignored by Japan and Iceland, which abused a loophole allowing hunting for scientific research, and Norway, which claimed an exemption for indigenous cultural practices. Nonetheless the ban reversed the decline in numbers of the most endangered whale species. After the International Whaling Commission was stacked with unconnected parties that supported hunting in return for aid, the moratorium was relaxed last year to allow a limited catch.

Whaling is an economically insignificant industry that supplements the diet of just 1 per cent of Japanese. But scientists and conservationists fear that legalisation of the hunt for the species at the top of the marine food chain, under conservation rules difficult to enforce, could be a very significant risk to ecological equilibrium.

Japan's tireless campaign for lifting the ban has served the interests of resurgent nationalism. In considering its next move, Tokyo should weigh that against the collateral damage to its international image as a good environmental citizen.