The Japanese whaling fleet set off recently amid much fanfare and celebration from its home port of Shimonoseki. Children waved flags covered with cartoon whales, politicians made speeches and a band played "Popeye the Sailor Man." Officials told the assembled crowd that Japan must preserve its "whale-eating culture."
While it's true that Japanese communities have been whaling in their coastal waters for hundreds of years, in fact no nation, including Japan, is legally permitted to conduct a hunt like this one — where almost 1,000 whales may be killed — for the purpose of preserving its whaling tradition.
And in reality, today's high-tech whaling in no way resembles traditional Japanese coastal whaling. Japanese whalers use boats the size of battleships and employ high-powered automatic harpoon guns to kill whales. They process the whale meat at sea so that it can be sold once they return home.
But meanwhile, back in Japan, demand for whale meat continues to decline — more than 4,200 tons remain stockpiled in freezers, according to a recent government report — and selling it overseas would violate the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
It is hard to understand why the Japanese government is trying so hard to preserve its whale-eating tradition. But at least the world is beginning to understand that a previous explanation — science — doesn't hold water.
For more than 20 years, international law has prohibited commercial hunting because whales had been hunted to the brink of extinction. The law, however, contains a large loophole. As long as the Japanese maintain that whale hunting is conducted for the purpose of scientific research, they can kill any species of whale, even endangered whales, and can do so anywhere in international waters, even in a whale sanctuary.
So, whereas they may call it research, the Japanese officials' send-off remarks only confirm what many have suspected all along — the whaling expedition is not primarily about science.
Perhaps now there is hope that Japan's government may be willing to change its whaling policies. In a dramatic holiday turnaround, Japan, in the face of growing international pressure, pulled back from its plan to hunt 50 humpback whales. Japan's decision not to kill endangered humpback whales as previously planned, for at least "one year or two," is an encouraging first step.
But Japan is still actively expanding its "scientific research program." It still plans to kill hundreds more whales than it killed last year, including highly endangered fin whales. Since the prohibition on all commercial whaling was enacted, the Japanese alone have killed more than 15,000 whales, under the guise of science.
Moreover, Japan is planning to build a new, state-of-the-art commercial-sized whaling vessel that would operate for many years to come. Scientists across the globe have condemned Japan's "scientific" whaling program.
The Bush administration deserves credit for encouraging Japan to forgo its plans to kill humpback whales, but it must do more. Only after the whaling fleet set sail, and after Japan's new prime minister returned home from a visit to Washington, D.C., did a State Department spokesman politely urge Japan to "refrain" from using lethal methods to conduct its research.
It is time for the Japanese government to face the reality of its fading whaling industry. Rather than killing whales in the name of science, exploiting a loophole in the international commercial whaling moratorium, it should attempt to determine whether some elements of the long whaling tradition could be retained without causing lasting harm to whale populations and the international rule of law.
Rather than increase the size and scale of its falsely labeled scientific research, in the face of shrinking demand for whale meat at home and a chorus of rebuke abroad, Japan should completely abandon its ambitions to kill humpbacks and other endangered whales.
For its part, the U.S. government must push for real reform of the international laws and institutions established to protect whales. And it should employ all available diplomatic channels to obtain binding assurances that the Japanese will not hunt endangered whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. It is time to bring whale conservation into the 21st century.