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After 30 Year Hiatus, Japan Resumed Commercial Whaling


Japan is back in the whaling business for the first time in decades. The country pulled out of the International Whaling Commission last December. Japan had continued to hunt whales for scientific research for years and sold off the meat. Activists say that's how it worked around the IWC's moratorium on commercial hunting. Now free to set their own rules, Japan has a catch quota of 227 whales for the rest of this year. Whalers made their first kills this week.

Here to talk about this is Kurkpatrick Dorsey. He's a professor at the University of New Hampshire. He's written a book about the history of whaling agreements and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

KURKPATRICK DORSEY: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

CORNISH: First, what is the market for whale meat at this point in Japan and is it really enough to warrant essentially pulling out of the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling?

DORSEY: The market appears to be pretty small. There was a story I noted today that the first cuts of whale sold for about $140, it looked like, per kilo, I think was the market. So there is clearly a market. There has been for years, but it's not nearly as large as it used to be. And I don't really think this is about the market; I think this is more about Japanese attitudes towards the West and a resistance to ending whaling because the Western states wanted them to end whaling.

CORNISH: Really? What do you mean by that?

DORSEY: Well, the Japanese got into whaling in the 1930s and then were kicked out by World War II but then got back in in U.S. occupation period, in the 1940s. And they have defended their right to whale under the International Whaling Commission's rules, stridently, really since the 1970s. And at some point, they concluded that this was a matter of almost national principle. So to give up whaling simply as a compromise, an acknowledgement that whaling is no longer acceptable, would be a pretty remarkable about-face for the Japanese government

CORNISH: Right. I mean, what about Japan's reputation with the other countries who are still abiding by the IWC's agreement?

DORSEY: Well, I think the Japanese have decided that most of those countries have already passed judgment on them, and that countries like Australia and New Zealand are already unhappy with Japan. And all that Japan can do is give up whaling, which it's not going to do. I think that the one possibility here is that the Japanese government, according to all the reports I've seen, is not subsidizing these whaling expeditions. And whaling basically needs to be subsidized to make money because it's a very expensive proposition - just any of these large ships out in the high seas. And they don't make a lot of money on a regular basis.

So if the government isn't subsidizing the whaling industry, there's an excellent chance that it will lose money and then eventually just go out of business on its own. If that happens, and the Japanese might be able to escape this position because they once (ph) supported the right to whale, but could simply say the market simply wasn't there to support whaling on the high seas.

CORNISH: Can I ask what this says about the strength of the IWC or, I mean, other international conservation agreements - right? - to have a country like this just pull out and go their own way?

DORSEY: Well, this is the thing that the founders of the IWC feared in 1946, was whaling outside of the global rules. And the country they feared the most was Japan, and they often talked about the need to avoid a free-for-all on the whaling grounds if a whaling country stepped out. We're in such different times right now that I don't know that this will directly affect the Whaling Commission.

But it is a pretty large statement. The Whaling Commission is committed to conservation of whales, and the Japanese are basically saying that they would rather take any abuse for getting out of this convention than to stay in the convention, which is really remarkable. There are very few environmental conventions that countries leave. They usually get in to try to build up their international reputation. So this is pretty shocking that the Japanese are willing to take this hit to their reputation.

CORNISH: That's Kurkpatrick Dorsey, author of the book "Whales And Nations: Environmental Diplomacy On The High Seas." Thank you for explaining it to us.

DORSEY: Thank you.