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Japanese whalers defend livelihood

Thursday, July 10, 2003

WADA, Japan -- Just as the sun's rays peek over the Pacific, blood and blubber begin pouring over the pier-side slaughterhouse floor as rubber-booted butchers chop up one of the summer season's first whales.

Brandishing machetes like surgeons' scalpels, the dozen men first strip the waxy skin back like a banana peel, then carve out the coveted red meat. In 90 minutes, the 10-ton, 30-foot-long Baird's beaked whale is diced into hundreds of brick-sized chunks.

This year's hunt is Japan's first since the International Whaling Commission enraged Tokyo by rejecting its pleas for an expanded catch. And it highlights the mounting frustrations in a nation where some fear whaling is more endangered than the seagoing mammals themselves.

"For more than 400 years, people have been eating whale here," said Yoshinori Shoji, president of Gaibo Hogei, the town's last whaling company. "But I don't know what the future will bring."

Shoji owns one of five commercial whaling boats plying Japan's coastal waters. His company and a few others hunt Baird's beaked and pilot whales, species not subject to the International Whaling Commission's 1986 ban on commercial whaling.

Whaling in this hub southeast of Tokyo dates to 1612. But coastal companies fear more restrictions after last month's International Whaling Commission meeting in Berlin.

Tokyo wanted approval for a limited coastal catch of 150 minke whales, but was rebuffed. Japanese whalers had caught 300 minkes a year before the moratorium on commercial whaling, and argued the proposed quota was similar to those granted aboriginal whalers in Greenland and Alaska.

Barred from harpooning minke for nearly two decades, Japan's coastal whale fleet has mothballed four boats and shed more than half its 250 whalers.

Wada's population has tumbled by about 25 percent to 6,000 people since the whaling heydays, and now relies on whaling-oriented tourism to bring in money -- a Sea World marine park is just up the coast.

Nowadays, it's mostly old-timers at the docks when a whale comes in.

"Back when I was a child, boats were always bringing in whales," said 70-year-old Shizue Ishii, who was among nearly 30 people shelling out $12 a pound for the glistening red meat.

Wednesday's whale was the fifth this season for Wada, which has an annual quota of 26 Baird's beaked whales.

Chikao Kimura, secretary of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association, said comparisons of Japan's coastal whalers to North American aboriginal hunters are limited because the "societies are different." But he said whaling holds equal cultural, religious and economic significance in both places.

Japanese have eaten whales for thousands of years. For centuries, souls of hunted whales have been memorialized at Buddhist temples. After World War II, whale meat became a leading source of protein for Japanese.

Whalers in Wada boast that nothing is wasted.

"Every bit of the whale is utilized, the meat, the bones, the blubber, the stomach," Shoji said. "Even the blood is used in fertilizer."

For the last 15 years, Japan has sought a special quota to hunt coastal minke whales, and each time it has been denied. After the Berlin meeting, Japan threatened to withhold Whaling Commission membership dues, boycott commission committees and form another whaling body.

Many Japanese want to pull out of the commission.

"It's getting more and more illogical for us to stay in," Shoji said. "We should be coming to the end of the road."

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, however, has pledged to work for change from within the Whaling Commission -- at least for now.

Whalers like Shoji worry the commission will expand its purview to all whales, and cite the commission's attitude toward Japan's scientific whaling program.

The country is allowed a separate haul of whales from the North Pacific and waters around Antarctica for research purposes into migratory and mating patterns to gauge the feasibility of future commercial hunts.

Critics call the program commercial whaling in disguise because the meat is eventually sold.

In Berlin, the Whaling Commission passed two resolutions urging Japan to abandon the scientific hunts, saying they are "assuming the characteristics of commercial whaling."

"The resolutions are not legally binding, but it sets a new course and atmosphere," Kimura said. "It could all be quite detrimental."


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