A small Japanese fleet caught their first whales on Monday in Japan’s first commercial hunt in more than three decades, a move that has aroused global condemnation and fears for the fate of whales.
Japan has long said few whale species are endangered and announced in December it was leaving the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to resume hunting after years of campaigns by industry supporters and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose constituency includes a city that has long whaled.
“It’s part of Japan’s food culture,” said Sachiko Sakai, a 66-year-old taxi driver in Kushiro, a gritty port city on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, where five whaling ships were waved out of harbor in a brief ceremony early on Monday.
“The world opposes killing whales, but you can say the same thing about many of the animals bred on land and killed for food.”
The ships, which are set to be joined by vessels from the southern port of Shimonoseki, will spend much of the summer hunting for minke and Baird’s beaked whales.
Crew in orange life vests took positions on the decks as the blue-hulled ships sailed out of Kushiro, some with red banners fluttering from their masts.
By Monday afternoon, one ship returned with a roughly 8-meter-long minke whale. It was winched up from the vessel and taken off to be weighed.
“This is a great day. I’m really happy with the resumption of commercial whaling,” said Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association. “We were able to take a splendid whale.”
This year’s quota for commercial whaling, including minkes, sei whales and Bryde’s whales, is 227, the Fisheries Agency said. The quota, to be set annually, is less than the 330 whales Japan harvested in the Antarctic until recently.
Environmentalists said the launch was delayed until after a summit of leaders of G20 major economies that Japan hosted, but whaling proponents have denied this.
Whaling is a tiny industry in Japan, with about 300 people directly linked to whaling.
Japan’s annual supplies of about 4,000-5,000 tonnes amount to 40-50 grams for each citizen, or about the weight of half an apple. Even whaling supporters say building demand will take time.