Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
A minke whale is unloaded from a vessel at a port in the Hokkaido city of Kushiro, northern Japan. Photo: Kyodo

Why a new Japanese whaling ship is good news for animal welfare campaigners

  • Top whaling firm Kyodo Senpaku is pouring US$54 million into a new mother ship to replace its ageing Nisshin Maru
  • But with the Japanese losing their appetite for whale meat and the government slashing subsidies, the expense could help sink an industry already heading for bankruptcy, campaigners believe
Animal rights activists have – perhaps surprisingly – welcomed news that Japan’s whaling industry is sinking 6 billion yen (US$54.47 million) into a new mother ship for its whaling fleet. Their reasoning is that investing in a product that few want while the industry is being shorn of its government subsidies can only hasten its collapse.

After years of thinly disguised commercial whaling under the pretence of scientific research, Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2019 and immediately permitted its fleet to operate commercially in domestic waters.

Last year, the government subsidised the industry – at taxpayers’ expense – to the tune of 5.1 billion yen, despite whale meat sales netting less than half of this in return, at just 2.5 billion yen.

The whalers’ financial situation worsened in April, when Kyodo Senpaku, one of the main whaling firms, was informed that after receiving 1.3 billion yen last year for “the development of fishing grounds and technological innovation”, the subsidy was being slashed to a loan of 340 million yen that would have to be repaid.

Workers pour sake on a captured Minke whale after it was unloaded in Kushiro, Hokkaido prefecture, Japan. Photo: AFP

Nevertheless, the company announced after a shareholder meeting in June that it was going ahead with the construction of a new whaling ship to replace the ageing Nisshin Maru – although the 6 billion yen being spent on the ship is less than half of the initially proposed budget of 15 billion yen.

The company intends to raise the funds through a crowdfunding campaign and loans.

“The new mother ship is planned to be launched in 2024 and we are already planning to repay the debt with our own cash flow,” said Konomu Kubo, a spokesman for the company.

Kyodo Senpaku intended to achieve “independent management without relying on subsidies as soon as possible”, he said, although he admitted that under current catch quotas, it was “impossible to turn the balance into the black for the time being”.

Campaigners against Japan’s whaling industry believe the industry is already on its last legs with subsidies replaced by loans and that whaling firms could be bankrupt in as little as three years.

“Japan’s commercial whaling has been in financial free fall for more than two decades,” said Patrick Ramage, senior director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Without subsidies by Japanese taxpayers, Japan’s dwindling whaling industry will quickly sink from its own weight.”

How Japan’s return to commercial whaling could actually kill the industry

Research has shown that the industry’s costs consistently exceed its income and “despite decades of promotional efforts by the Japan Fisheries Agency and other apologists for Japan’s unsustainable whaling activities, the Japanese public is indifferent to whaling and not buying whale meat”, he said.

With the industry on “life support”, without significant subsidies, whaling operations could die out within 36 months, Ramage said.

Ren Yabuki, director of the animal rights organisation Life Investigation Agency, agreed that the industry could not survive without being artificially propped up with government funds.

“I firmly believe the government should not support the whaling industry with money from taxes because this is a business conducted by private companies who should survive on their own budgets, just like any other Japanese company,” he said.

“But the number of people who eat whale meat in Japan is decreasing year on year, so it is no longer a viable business. The public is learning about the truth of whaling as organisations such as ours have repeatedly carried out educational activities. I think that many Japanese are changing their attitudes as they come to know the hidden truths of the whaling industry.”

Sweets packaging featuring whale at a roadside store in Minamiboso, east of Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Reuters

What’s the catch?

Industry officials are pinning their hopes on the government permitting whalers to both increase their catch and start harpooning other species beyond the minke, sei and Bryde’s whales that can presently be hunted. The industry also believes that Japan will defy international pressure and resume whaling beyond Japan’s territorial waters – even though that would inevitably bring them into conflict with other nations.

“I hope that the catch area will expand to the high seas in the future,” Kyodo Senpaku spokesman Kubo said.

“This is because if the catching area expands, the catch quota will increase accordingly and the balance will improve in terms of management.

“Whales are a fishery resource and, without a negative impact on the resource, there should be no problem whaling on the high seas, just like other fisheries.”

Eating Boston lobster in Hong Kong could hasten demise of North Atlantic whale

Ideally, he said, Japan’s whalers wanted to return to the Antarctic Ocean, despite a large part of the area being declared by the IWC as a sanctuary for wildlife

“The Antarctic Ocean is the most abundant sea area for whale resources on the planet,” Kubo said. “Therefore, even though Japan has stopped research whaling, we dispatch a research vessel to the Antarctic Ocean every year and continue our research into whale resources.

“This is to prepare for the need for whale resources from the Southern Ocean in the future,” he said, adding that the new whaling ship had a clear mission.

“Food shortages due to global population growth are a crucial problem for Japan, which has a low food self-sufficiency rate. We believe that the minimum equipment is necessary to prepare for future emergencies.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: New ship threatens to sink whaling fleet ‘will hasten decline’ of whaling