In the Belly of the Whale

The Whaling Series > Whale Consumption > Belly of the Whale

As a youth, the Captain often found himself at the edge of the neighborhood pond after school, dropping one bluegill after another into his trusty creel. A Norman Rockwell subject with a Pocket Fisherman, he was.

This week he is tackling much bigger game: Japan's attempts to resume a whaling program. So weigh anchor on the Pequod - the Captain meets with Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research.

The photo features thousands of silver Japanese anchovy spilling from what looks like a white sack into an orange plastic bucket. To most, each fish is merely a potential option for dangling from the end of a hook.

But to Japanese cetacean researchers, the meaning goes far beyond simple bait.

The photo is from the publication JARPN II, a summary report detailing findings of Japan's whaling research team in a section of the North Pacific during 2002 and 2003. Further, the sack is in reality a sliced-open Byrde's whale's stomach.

"Some of the things we are looking at are the number of whales, what kind of food they eat, and how much are they consuming," says Dr. Hiroshi Hatanaka, Director General of Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, as he points at the bulging whale stomach from his office in Tokyo's Chuo Ward.

Do whales eat significant quantities of fish (in addition to plankton and krill)? The Institute's research claims that the whales living in a selected research area of the Pacific annually consume 2 million tons of anchovy, a number ten times the catch of Japanese fisherman.

The Institute has produced literature that says that consumption such as this is upsetting the balance of the oceanic ecosystem - in other words, whales are eating too many fish.

This is simply one argument Japan uses in attempting to reach its goal: to establish a "sustainable commercial harvesting" of whales. It is a slow process, one that requires ample evidence in convincing anti-whaling nations within the International Whaling Commission that any future harpooning is harmless to whale stocks. And with cultural differences complicating the issue, the voyage to reach such a goal is a long one.

In 1986, the moratorium on commercial whaling was established, essentially limiting the supply of whale meat in Japan to that taken by its research whaling ships. The research examines captured whales' digestive and reproductive organs, amongst other testing. In addition, non-lethal sighting surveys and biopsy sampling provide further information. Next year the Institute plans on taking approximately 700 whales from the Antarctic and Pacific.

The meat from the catch then usually winds up on dinner plates in the form of sashimi, bacon, or marinated with soy sauce at some of Japan's higher end restaurants. The proceeds fund 90% of the Institute's operating budget with the government providing the remainder.

The data culled from this research since 1986 has shown that, Hatanaka says, "many of the whale resources have increased, have rebounded."

He cites a number of species in the Pacific as being "robust and abundant," specifically the stock of 25,000 Minke whales that travels up to the Sea of Okhotsk and the stock of 26,000 Bryde's that moves within the warmer waters a bit further south.

Hatanaka is quick to admit that there are many whale resources that are in a critical situation as far as abundance. But he maintains that overall the current reproduction rates of all species will double the whale population around the world in five years.

"We have a situation where we are protecting whales. But they are animals; they reproduce," he says.

One of the Institute's motivating forces is that Japan possesses a "whale food culture," a society where whale hunting is a time-held custom that is depicted in ukiyo-e woodblock prints from centuries ago. In fact, newspaper advertisements of the Institute liken the loss of the ability to eat whale meat with that of not being able to eat pork or beef in Western societies.

Though whale meat is a delicacy in Japan today and that harvesting whales (like one might for pigs or cattle) is a near impossibility, Hatanaka maintains that the analogy is reasonable given that Japan's older generation used to eat whale throughout its childhood, with the younger generation having generally been deprived of the experience. He says that if whale meat were more readily available - and at a more reasonable price - more and more people in Japan would eat it, just like in the old days.

"In the Edo Period (1603-1867), eating meat from animals with hair was prohibited," Hatanaka says, citing Japan's Buddhist principles. "For us Japanese, whales are perceived as fish in a sense."

The harpooning of whales in Japan dates all the way back to the 15th century, a time when the practice provided a source of income for coastal regions. Though whaling was suspended during World War II, Occupation forces allowed Japan to restart whaling in the Antarctic when food shortages became rampant. Because it was cheap, whale meat became a basic food for Japan's poor.

But anti-whaling groups are not convinced that resumption of whaling is possible.

Environmental group Greenpeace's webpage states: "Overturning the ban on whaling would be devastating to the world's whales, which are just beginning to recover from years of exploitation. Whales mature and breed slowly, thus populations are slow to recover. Furthermore, whales are already jeopardised by a number of human induced environmental threats, such as toxic pollution and climate change."

But Hatanaka says that such groups are ignoring science. He maintains: "Australia and New Zealand, the staunchest anti-whaling countries, they know that not all whale species are endangered. But they have a policy that 'no whaling' shall be permitted - no matter the reason."

At this year's IWC conference in Sorrento, Italy, Japan pushed for a removal of the ban on commercial whaling and the elimination of a whale sanctuary in the Antarctic Ocean. Though both were voted down (a three-quarter majority is required for the amendment of any rules and Japan presently has the support of roughly half of the IWC members) Hatanaka is not discouraged; he knows it is a long process. "Ten years ago, only a quarter (of IWC members) supported sustainable whaling," he says.

Hatanaka is pushing for whaling together with research. "I don't know if it will take 20 or 30 years but eventually commercial whaling will be resumed," he says. "But it won't be like the past; it will have to be very well regulated."

His vision for the Institute is clear.

"It is important to continue doing research, to be able to establish the condition of the different stocks, and to make people of the world understand that to use, on a sustainable basis, marine resources, including whales, is correct and important," Hatanoka says. "And that we eventually succeed. Not that people agree with us, but that they understand."

Note: All photos provided by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research.

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