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Environment : Japan Is Set for a Whale of a Fight : At a key meeting next month, the government will be out to ease a moratorium on the hunting of the huge mammals.

April 20, 1993|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAIJI, Japan — They flirted with death on the high seas, battling frigid weather, wild storms and the mightiest creatures of the deep in a 400-year-old tradition that brought this town food, livelihood and a colorful legacy as the birthplace of Japan's whaling industry.

But for six years now, the biggest adversary for the people of Taiji, a picturesque town of azure inlets and emerald bluffs in western Japan, has not been the whale. Rather, an international moratorium on commercial whale hunting has stripped the town of its most important industry, thrown scores of whalers out of work and threatened to obliterate what townsfolk say are rich local traditions.

"Even though there are a lot of whales out there, we were forced to quit because of international opinion," said Wataru Kohama, 62, whose brown and weathered face reflects his 40 years in whaling. "The job that was handed down to me from my ancestors was just taken away."

As the International Whaling Commission prepares to meet next month in Kyoto to review the moratorium, the Japanese government and whaling industry are stepping up efforts to lift the ban and restore limited hunting of the minke whale, a relatively small species that is not considered endangered. Armed with recent IWC estimates placing the Antarctic's minke population at about 760,000, some Japanese scientists contend that several hundred minkes can be hunted annually without endangering the size of the stock.

(The IWC itself has not yet come to any conclusions about how many minkes could be safely hunted; the commission is first trying to complete work on a scientific method for managing and monitoring the process, one major item of business for the Kyoto conference.)

Japan's position, one that is shared by fellow pro-whalers Iceland and Norway, places it on a collision course with the United States, France, Australia and several other members of the 36-nation commission.

The United States, bound by its own 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act barring the hunting of most warm-blooded creatures of the sea, is not likely to support a resumption of commercial whaling regardless of how many whales are out there. France, for its part, is planning to propose making the Antarctic a marine life sanctuary.

As a result, despite the reams of scientific data and mind-numbing technical arguments, the issue is not likely to be decided in the cool light of rational analysis. Rather, it may hinge on emotions over intellect, culture over science and attitudes and values concerning a creature that has long captured the imagination of writers, scientists and sailors.

To wit: Is the whale simply a resource to be used by man? Or is it a creature of special intelligence and grace that should be left untouched?

"There is a deep gulf between pro- and anti-whaling nations, and it comes down to differences between meat-eaters and fish-eaters," said Fuzuko Nagasaki, the head of Japan's government-supported Institute of Cetacean Research. The institute catches 300 minkes per year for research under an exception to the moratorium and sells the meat to local wholesalers.

"No matter how much you debate," Nagasaki added, "that difference cannot be resolved scientifically."

Michael Tillman, a U.S. federal fisheries official who serves as an IWC senior adviser, agrees that a fundamental philosophical gulf divides the two sides. But he said the difference is not driven by a Western abhorrence of eating whale meat, a common perception here in Japan. "The U.S. is perfectly willing to allow our own Eskimos to catch and eat bowhead whales. These are special people with special subsistence and cultural needs," Tillman said. "What we object to, and what the world community objects to, is the commercial use of whaling. Is it necessary for whales to be caught so they can be sold at expensive restaurants in big cities in the world? Just because a marine resource exists doesn't mean it should be exploited."

Kazuhiko Ninomiya, a counselor with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Tokyo, said whales deserve special international protection for a number of reasons. They suffer from a notorious history of exploitation, with the blues, fins and other great whales hunted nearly to extinction. As opposed to land animals, they circle the world's oceans and thus constitute a global treasure rather than any one nation's resource. In addition, their reproduction rate is far slower than those of fish, and both pollution and the ozone layer's deterioration pose threats.

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