"After broadly considering the national interest, Japan should drop its ocean-going research whaling," wrote Taniguchi in the February edition of Wedge magazine. "Instead, it should revive its deficit-ridden coastal whaling and find a way to keep the sales channels and food culture of eating whale meat."

Originally set up to manage the whale population, including the protection of endangered species and the development of the whaling industry, the International Whaling Commission in recent decades has become focused almost exclusively on the conservation of whales. The new proposal marks a significant shift away from that position.

Japan has been catching whales for research purposes from December to March in the Antarctic Ocean every year since 1987, the year after commercial whaling was banned by the IWC. In 1994 it started another research program from May to September in the northern Pacific Ocean. The research is to determine the quantity, whereabouts and habits of whale populations, with an eye to eventually resuming commercial whaling. Japan's critics say the number of whales caught is far higher than that needed for research.

The government-set quota for this year's Antarctic research whaling is  935 minke and 50 fin whales. The program allows meat from these whales to be sold to cover the research costs. It nets 4,000-5,000 tons of meat, which generates US$78-90 million. Moreover, the research program receives US$5.5 million in government support every year. Still, the program is facing financial difficulties as the domestic demand for whale meat has been gradually decreasing.

While insisting that the activity is legal and justified, Taniguchi said in his article there is no need for Japan to continue a program that is not profitable, that undermines its image and makes enemies of its closest allies.

Critics also question the value of Japan's scientific studies. About 40 percent of the 84 members of the IWC, however - including West African, Asia-Pacific and Central American countries as well as Russia, China, South Korea, Norway and Iceland - support whaling under scientific management.

Since 2005 Japan has been sending experts to Africa to teach researchers there how to locate and identify whales, in the pursuit of sustainable use of aquatic resources.

Unlike fossil fuels, which will run out eventually, biological resources like whales have the capacity for reproduction. Japanese scientists believe it is possible to sustain their use if only the "interest" is used, without touching the "principal" Researchers have discovered that the number of minke whales has actually been increasing, from 80,000 in the early 20th century to 76 million now. While humpback and fin whales are also recovering rapidly, the blue whale, believed to be the largest mammal, is still classified as an endangered species because its numbers remain low despite a ban on hunting it for more than 40 years.

The growth rate of minke whales is about 4 percent, or an increase of around 30,000 per year. The scientific committee of the IWC recognizes that their numbers would not be adversely affected if 2,000 whales per year were caught for the next 100 years.

For Japan, which has the lowest level of food self-sufficiency among major developed countries, marine resources are a critical part of its food supply. It is hesitant to agree to limits on a resource that it believes to be sustainable, and concerned that such limits might extend to other species. The whaling issue serves as a breakwater to protect Japan's food strategy.

However, for Australia, which has been earning around US$340 million annually from whale watching, whales are an important tourist resource. The country considers the Antarctic Ocean its own backyard, and cannot tolerate Japan's whaling activities there.

The IWC proposal asks Japan to phase out its Antarctic whaling over five years, while four traditional whaling communities would be allowed to catch minke whales in Japan's own coastal waters, for commercial use.

The IWC will vote on the proposal in June.

Hiroyuki Matsuda, a professor at the Faculty of Environment and Information Sciences of Yokohama National University, has suggested that Japan should begin catching minke whales along its own coast even ahead of that date. "It's too late if we wait until we gain approval from the IWC to catch minke whales in our coastal waters, because it is an urgent issue," Matsuda said.

"All the delegates from participating countries have come to share a sense of crisis, that the IWC might collapse if we cannot reach some kind of agreement this time," said Joji Morishita, a counselor for Japan's Fisheries Agency. He is in favor of making concessions in order to move the IWC negotiations forward.

The whaling issue is more complicated than just the economic concerns. It involves different levels of awareness about the current state of various whales, as well as traditional values and cultural differences and national diplomatic strategies. The Japanese themselves are not united on the issue. Many younger Japanese are not familiar with whale meat, and do not share the concerns of whaling officials, who are considering Japan's long-term food strategy.

"The number of people who think that environmental conservation and sustainable use are in an adversarial relationship seems to be decreasing," said Matsuda. "The trend of eating healthy and environmentally friendly food is advancing steadily. The whaling issue is a good opportunity to consider such environmental problems."


Comments on this article by Captain Paul Watson: Although this is a biased article, written by a Japanese journalist, it does indicate that the controversy over whaling is real and more and more Japanese critics of current whaling practices are speaking out and more and more people are listening. The population figures for whales quoted in this article are ridiculously inaccurate. To suggest that that Minke whale populations have increased from 80,000 to 76,000,000 has no basis in scientific observation or measurement.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society holds the position that all whale species remain threatened by over-hunting, illegal hunting, pollution, global warming, acidification of the oceans, ozone depletion, over-fishing and the exploitation of plankton.

For Matsuda to suggest that whales are an "environmentally friendly" food illustrates just how delusional the Japanese government is about the state of our oceans.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society does not consider a collapse of the IWC to be a "crisis." It is our position that a collapse of the IWC will put an end to this stalemate over whaling. We need a new international body dedicated to the conservation of whales, not the destruction of whales.