Saving the Whalers

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At the Oshika whaleland museum in this tiny village in northeastern Japan, you can get your cetacean two ways: stuffed, in the form of a plush children's toy, or canned, for dinner. But you can't get it fresh. Although Ayukawa was once a bustling whaling port, a two-decade-long international ban on commercial whaling has all but killed the industry here. Now just a pair of companies occasionally ply nearby waters, roving for the Baird's beaked whales they're still allowed to harvest. It's the sort of insignificant game the whalers of Ayukawa would have thrown back in the old days, when meaty minke whales were the target. The rare catches are cut and cleaned by pensioners who work part-time, as the young migrate away, leaving no one to whom the aging whalers can pass on their skills. "The industry here will die out if the ban stays in place," says Katsuya Yusa, executive director of Toba Whaling, a local company that's been hunting the animals for decades. "If we were allowed to take 50 minke whales a year, that's all we'd need to support ourselves."

Yusa may get his wish. At next week's annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in South Korea, Japan is expected to push for an end to the moratorium on commercial whaling. Though the country has always been against the ban, conservationists fear that Japan and other pro-whaling nations like Norway and Iceland have lined up unprecedented support in the IWC this year, and might even extend hunting to protected species like the humpback. "If Japan increases its hunting, it could devastate these whale populations," says Nicola Beynon, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society International (HSI) in Australia. But Japan's whaling industry argues that targeted species have recovered to the point where sustainable whaling is possible, and that the country shouldn't feel constrained by foreign sensitivities. "For Japanese people, whale is part of our food culture," says Keiichi Nakajima, president of the Japan Whaling Association. "It's in our DNA."

Indeed, some coastal towns have been whaling for centuries. Yet few Japanese ate whale prior to the lean postwar years, before General Douglas MacArthur encouraged it as a cheap, abundant source of protein. Japan took to it with gusto, and that meant boom times for fishing ports like Ayukawa, where boats brought back as many as 600 whales a year. "In so many ways—food, culture, tourism—everything was based on whaling," says 67-year-old Yusa, whose family has been in whaling for two generations. That prosperity died when commercial whaling was banned by the IWC in 1986. Japan was still permitted to kill almost 1,000 whales a year for scientific research, which conservation groups regard as little more than backdoor commercial whaling. But whale meat went from a cheap staple to an expensive delicacy. Ports like Ayukawa hollowed out. You can still find whale in restaurants here, but it's not locally caught—and at $55 for a meal of minke, it's far too costly for most residents in the depressed town.

Pro-whaling groups fear that taste for the fatty meat is fading, potentially weakening the political movement to bring back commercial whaling. That's one reason why the Japan Whaling Association holds an annual whale-eating event that would make a Greenpeace member gag. Hundreds of Diet lawmakers and staff members packed the Parliamentary Museum hall last Tuesday to taste such delicacies as whale sushi from Sapporo and whale steak from Tokyo, dished out by cooks in jackets with pictures of happy cartoon whales on the back. Mutsuko Onishi, serving her famous Osaka whale noodles, said she wants to see the moratorium lifted for the sake of her cooking. "When the ban began, it became really difficult to buy good whale," said Onishi, who has prepared whale for over 40 years. "Now we only get the leftovers from the research hunts. It's not always that tasty."

That attitude has conservationists rallying to save the whales all over again. Australian Prime Minister John Howard last month sent a plea directly to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, though it had little effect. Australian newspapers have run story after fevered story on the barbarity of Japanese whaling. "People feel a lot of empathy toward them here," says Beynon of HSI, which unsuccessfully sued to stop Japanese whaling in Antarctic waters claimed by Australia. (It's appealing the decision.) Though Japanese fishing officials say more common whale species should be managed like any other marine resource, environmental groups argue that any kind of whaling is inhumane, and that whale populations are simply too vulnerable to risk hunting again. "History has shown us what happens when you make these mistakes with whales," says Beynon.

To many Japanese, the idea that it's obviously wrong to eat whale smacks of cultural bullying, whether or not they personally like a cetacean cutlet. And at a time when Japan is becoming ever more assertive on the global stage, it's not likely to stop doing something just because foreigners disapprove. "If other people don't want to eat whale, that's fine," said Onishi. "But we should be allowed to do what we want. Leave us alone."