Japanese whaling companies fear the government is leaning toward scrapping the hunt in the Pacific Northwest following its earlier decision to suspend whaling off Antarctica next season.
Company officials and whalers are lobbying government leaders to continue the hunt, saying the livelihoods of hundreds are at stake.
The government is expected to decide this week whether research whaling in the Pacific Northwest, including Japan’s coastal waters, should be conducted this season as scheduled.
“Research whaling is a ray of hope for us,” said Keiichi Endo, president of whaling company Ayukawa Hogei in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
Ayukawa port in Ishinomaki was devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, dealing a serious blow to whalers and other fishermen in the area.
Research whaling in the Pacific Northwest for fiscal 2014 is scheduled to begin April 22. The whaling fleet, based in Ayukawa port, is licensed to catch 60 whales in coastal Japan under the program approved by the International Whaling Commission.
The government has already decided to scrap the hunt in the Antarctic Ocean in the upcoming season, which normally starts in December, to abide by the International Court of Justice’s decision last month.
The U.N.’s top court in The Hague ordered Japan to halt whaling off Antarctica under its current scientific program, saying the output of Japan’s research is “limited” despite its quota catch of up to 1,035 whales in the region.
Although the ICJ’s decision does not cover Japan’s research whaling in the Pacific Northwest, the prevailing view at the Foreign Ministry and other government functions is that Japan has been urged to take into account all of its research whaling under the court order.
Many government officials agree that Japan should review its research programs in both the Antarctic Ocean and the Pacific Northwest, and postpone the hunts until at least fiscal 2015.
In Tokyo, Makoto Ito, president of whaling company Kyodo Senpaku, met fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on April 15 to lobby for the continuation of research whaling in the Pacific Northwest. Ito was accompanied by crew members who had just returned from the expedition in the Antarctic Ocean.
“If the hunt in the Pacific Northwest is also suspended after the one in the Antarctic Ocean, more of our employees will quit,” he said. “It will make it impossible for us to carry on research whaling.”
After the ICJ’s decision, three employees submitted their resignations to Kyodo Senpaku, a Tokyo-based company that employs about 180, including crew members.
Hayashi, however, stopped short of promising to go ahead with the Pacific Northwest hunt this season.
“We will consider the matter after reading the court ruling carefully,” Hayashi said.
But he added that the government will deal with the issue in a way to dispel the concerns of the whalers.
Under the existing program, Japan can catch 380 whales in the Pacific Northwest.
Japan carries out research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean and the Pacific Northwest based on programs submitted to and authorized by the IWC in conjunction with the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.
If the hunt is halted in the Pacific Northwest, it would mark the first time for Japan to have a catch of zero for research whaling since 1987, when it started research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. Whaling for research purposes in the Pacific Northwest began in 1994.
If the Pacific Northwest hunt continues, Japanese whalers are expected to catch 260 of the mammals in distant seas between May and July and 60 in waters off Kushiro, Hokkaido, from September to October.
About 30 crew members from six whaling companies are involved in the hunt in Japan’s coastal waters.
“It is important to bring about results by carrying out whaling as scheduled,” said an official involved in the hunt.
Whale meat from the research hunt in the Pacific Northwest accounted for about 30 percent of the total volume in the domestic market in 2012.
Whales caught are first examined for research purposes, and their meat can be sold to the market.
(This article was written by Takayuki Kihara and Satomi Ono.)
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