Court ruling could hurt Japan's whaling industry, but declining sales of meat could doom it

The Associated Press

A shopper walks past a whale meat specialty store at Tokyo's Ameyoko shopping district, Thursday, March 27, 2014. The greatest threat to Japan’s whaling industry may not be the environmentalists harassing its ships or the countries demanding its abolishment, but Japanese consumers. They’ve simply lost their appetite. The amount of whale meat stockpiled for lack of buyers has nearly doubled over 10 years, even as anti-whaling protests helped drive catches to record lows. More than 2,300 mink whales worth of meat is sitting in freezers while whalers still plan to catch another 1,300 whales per year. Uncertainty looms ahead of an International Court of Justice ruling expected Monday over a 2010 suit filed by Australia, which argues that Japan’s whaling - ostensibly for research - is a cover for commercial hunts. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Associated Press + More

Initially, the government injected about 500 million yen ($5 million) a year into the program, or about 10 percent of its costs. By 2007, the subsidy had grown to about 900 million yen ($9 million), and is projected to exceed 5 billion yen ($50 million) for the current fiscal year ending in September. That includes money for anti-Sea Shepherd measures, such as repairs for damage and dispatch of a patrol ship.

In 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries used an earthquake and tsunami disaster reconstruction fund to help cover whaling debts. The ministry later acknowledged funneling 2.3 billion yen ($23 million) of the fund into whaling, triggering public outcry. The whaling subsidy, now part of a broader package of fisheries issues, will expire next year.

Okubo, the marine researcher, says the research has been a comfortable option for Japan to keep the embattled industry alive without taking drastic restructuring needed if they are serious about going commercial again. The research has justified subsidies, kept jobs for whalers and allowed Japan to catch up to the ambitious catch quota. The industry at its peak in the 1960 had more than 10,000 crewmembers and fishermen, but that number has dropped to fewer than 200, plus a small number of coastal whalers.

The only commercial whaling operator still operating in Japan is Kyodo Sempaku Kaisha, which is affiliated with the Institute of Cetacean Research and manages whaling ships and meat sales.

Monday's ICJ ruling in the Hague could cost Japan the roughly 1,000 whales it takes in the Antarctic each year, or its catch quota could be reduced. Other Japanese whaling in the North Pacific and off the Japanese coast will not be affected.

Masayuki Komatsu, a former Fisheries Agency official who served as a Japanese negotiator at IWC annual meetings, says Antarctic whaling is legal under international rules.

"What's at stake is not just whales. It's a matter of territorial rights, in a way," said Komatsu, now a fisheries professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. "The Antarctic is an open sea that everyone is entitled to its rich resources. There is no need to concede to nationalistic confrontation."

But a 2011 report by a Fisheries Agency panel of outside experts recommended scaling back or terminating the Antarctic hunts, suggesting that coastal whaling could be enough for Japan's tiny appetite for whale meat. It was supposed to be an interim report, but no final report was ever published.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.