Support for Japan’s Whaling: On the Verge of Extinction?

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Whaling hasn’t had an overwhelming surge of global support since the days of oil lamps and corsets, but the eastern hemisphere’s tolerance for Japan’s ongoing hunt is wearing particularly thin these days.

The latest to jump ship is Palau, a Pacific island a few thousand miles south of Tokyo which has backed Japan in its exploitation of a loophole in the global whaling moratorium that allows nations to hunt whales in the name of science. Palau, which does not whale itself, joined the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2002 and has, until now, been a supporter of Japan’s research program — and a recipient of Japanese aid.

The announcement of Palau’s president that it would reconsider its position came hot on the heels of a June 13 Sunday Times article that reported several small nations admitted or considered receiving cash or gifts from Japan to win their votes to end the 24-year-old commercial ban on whaling in the upcoming meeting of the IWC. Japan promptly denied the allegations.

Palau isn’t exactly a lone ranger in its opposition. Japan and Australia have been locking horns on the issue since last month, when Canberra said it would take Tokyo to the International Court of Justice for flouting international law by continuing to hunt whales in Antarctic waters. The move followed a tumultuous season, when Japan whaling ships clashed several times with anti-whaling activists in what has become an annual scuffle in the southern seas. Japan rejected Australia’s warning, calling it a ploy ahead of campaign season.

Having lived in Iceland in 2006 when that island nation decided to resume its own scientific whaling program to much of the world’s dismay, it’s hard for me personally to understand why nations with bigger fish to fry are willing to risk so much political capital with their trading partners to fight what looks, to most of the world, like a losing battle. The continuing hunt for the endangered stocks of bluefin tuna may be wrong, but at least opponents can grudgingly acknowledge there is a economic and gastronomic incentive worth fighting for there. Whale meat, which is sold in Japan and Iceland, is not much of an industry, and to this palette, it’s straddling of the beefy-fishy flavor zones is a little gross.

In an alternate universe, some resolution could come to all of this at the annual meeting of the IWC that kicks off in Morocco on June 21. On the table this year is a new tack to find a way out of the deadlock between the organization’s pro- and anti-whaling nations by permitting a temporary, controlled commercial hunt that would in effect reduce the global annual whale catch.

But AFP is reporting that Japan’s go-to whale man, Farms and Fisheries Minister Masahiko Yamada, will skip this year’s meeting to continue to manage an outbreak of food-and-mouth disease affecting some of the most prized beef cattle breeds in southwestern Japan. And IWC chairman Christian Maquieira, who floated the new plan, won’t be attending the meeting either, due to illness.

It’s safe to say not a lot will get done with those parties absent, which means that business — and enmity — will likely continue as usual through Japan’s next whaling season, and 2011 is not shaping up to be the year the whale gets its big break.