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Japan resumes commercial whaling after 31 years

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Dead whales on the deck of a Japanese ship (Credit: International Whaling Commission)

A fleet of whaling ships left port on Monday at the start of Japan’s first commercial whaling season in more than three decades, officials say. The fishermen are allowed to kill more than 200 whales through the end of the year.

Three whaling ships left the port of Shimonoseki in western Japan on Monday morning while five smaller vessels left Kushiro on the northern island of Hokkaido. The eight vessels will be hunting for minke whales, Bryde’s whales, and sei whales.

During the first commercial whaling season, which will last through the end of the year, whaling companies will be allowed to kill 227 whales under a quota set by Japan’s Fisheries Agency. This includes 52 minke whales, 150 Bryde’s whales, and 25 sei whales. It’s unclear if Japan will also allow whaling in the name of science.

The captain of a whaling vessel told the Kyodo news agency that he felt “uneasy” about the future of commercial whaling because whale meat consumption has fallen significantly since the 1960s. “Following the restart, I hope younger generations will get accustomed to eating whale meat,” a crew member told Kyodo.

In December, the Japanese government announced that it would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) on June 30. Commercial whaling will be allowed in waters near near Japan and within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Commercial whaling has been banned by IWC since 1986, but Japan had lobbied for years to ease the restrictions. A proposal to allow the commercial hunt of minke whales and other species which Japan believes are ‘relatively abundant’ was rejected last year.

Despite the ban, Japan has killed more than 17,000 whales since 1986, using a scientific exemption to gather data on whale populations. Critics have long criticized it as a cover for commercial whaling, noting that meat from the annual hunt ended up being sold.

While commercial whaling this year has been limited to 227 whales, more than 400 whales have already been killed during two rounds of scientific whaling. At least 333 minke whales were killed in the Antarctic Ocean from November to April, and 80 others were killed off Japan in April and May.

Astrid Fuchs of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) said in December that Japan’s decision to resume commercial whaling was “devastating news” for whales. She noted that whales are already facing a multitude of man-made threats, including climate change, overfishing, pollution and habitat loss.

Several other countries are also hunting for whales.

In 2016, Norway killed 432 minke whales and Iceland killed 17, using an objection or reservation to the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. Additionally, native peoples in the U.S., Russia, and Denmark are allowed to hunt a limited number of whales to meet nutritional and cultural needs, even though the meat is at times sold to tourists.

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