TOKYO, Feb 27, 2011 (IPS) - After years of stiff resistance, the Japanese government has announced a temporary halt to its controversial research whaling programme in the Antarctic Ocean, a decision that will finally stir the debate to promote sustainable fishing, say conservationists here.
"We welcome the decision to halt whaling this season as a step towards preserving whales which are an endangered species. The message is that whales have to be protected which is all the more valuable since it comes from a nation that is a leader in the consumption of seafood stocks," Junichi Sato, expert on whaling at Greenpeace Japan told IPS.
Since 1982, the world has followed global moratorium against commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) but only Japan was allocated an annual quota for scientific whaling that is aimed at determining available stocks.
Greenpeace International spearheads a global campaign against Japanese whaling that has led to bitter clashes and lawsuits against each other.
Several fisheries experts express support for the unprecedented move by the Japanese government, pointing out it is a vital landmark in dealing with the growing consumption of fish in the world that has lead to alarming depletion of stocks.
"The decision to call back the Japanese whaling fleet is based on low whale meat consumption locally, and other evidence that shows the industry is not sustainable," Prof. Toshio Katsura, marine biologist at Mie University told IPS.
Katsura has long called on the government to develop a visionary policy where fishing management based on quotas for fishers are seriously enforced in a bid to protect marine species.
Despite campaigns to increase the sale of whale meat from minke whales, the local market has reported a reduction of 30 percent in 2010, according to the Tokyo-based Minato Newspaper quoting the publicly funded whaling company Koyodo Senpaku.
Whale meat is popular among older consumers in the sixties and above whose diet soon after World War II relied on whale as a protein.
But a 2008 September survey conducted by an independent organization under a request by Greenpeace Japan conservationists indicates that 70 percent of people between the ages of 15 to 39 years have not eaten whale meat.
The Japanese media has reported that 4,000 tonnes of excess whale meat was frozen and stored in warehouses in 2009.
But, in sharp contrast to the mood displayed by conservationists, the announcement on Feb. 17 by Fisheries Minister Michiko Kano on the change of policy expressed no firm commitment to sustainable fishing practices.
Indeed, Kano avoided the word sustainability and instead cited "safety concerns for Japanese whalers" from harassment by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society that has blocked the Japanese ships from whaling.
The Japanese fleet Nishinmaru comprising five ships left for the Antarctica last December and harpooned 170 minke whales and two fin whales before it was called back. The catch is below the Japanese quota of 850 minke whales and 50 fin whales approved by the IWC for research purposes.
The government cites whale populations to justify this level of whaling for research. It says the minke whale population is estimated to have grown to more than 100,000 in the Atlantic and over 660,000 in the Southern Hemisphere.
Minke, a small sized whale, is reported to be the fastest growing species, and so research whaling is legitimate, according to the Japanese Fisheries Agency. Japan justifies research whaling as necessary to protect its indigenous cuisine that has included whale meat since the 12th century.
Prof. Masayuki Komatsu at the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies, a think tank, who served as a former negotiator for the government at the IWC, is critical of the new move.
"Calling back the Japanese whalers to protect them from irresponsible and violent activists smacks of diplomatic weakness. This is not the way to go," he told IPS.
The conservationists insist the new move to curtail whaling is a powerful boost to their long call on the Japanese government to manage dwindling marine resources around the world.
Toshiaki Fujita, local governmental official at the Niigata prefecture located on the northwest coast of country is currently putting the finishing touches to a landmark programme where fishermen will participate in sustainable catches of sweet shrimp, a Japanese delicacy.
Speaking to IPS, Fujita says the new step to regulate fishing is aimed at cultivating a sustainable management system that will gain the support of Japanese fishermen to share a quota in catches.
"As the catches of sweet shrimp became smaller in size, the stark reality of reducing catches and preserving stocks became obvious to the fishing industry. This is why they are now willing to participate in this management experiment," he said.
Niigata is the third largest resource in Japan for sweet shrimp providing 600 tonnes annually. Only ten out of a hundred fishing companies have voluntary joined the programme, but Fujita says the group represents the largest shrimp companies in the area.
Biologist Katsura who launched the Niigata project, heralds the step as a groundbreaking start in Japan where the government " stubbornly refuses to fund such moves which are crucial for sustainable fishing."
"Government focus is on maintaining the supply of fish and much money is spent on farm-harvested technology as the solution. This is not the answer in the long run as fish farms depend on feed from the oceans." (END)