First whaling fleet leaves Japan since International Court ruling

Japanese fishing fleets have launched their first whaling hunt since UN courts called an end to the killing of whales in the Antarctic.

Four whaling ships set forth from the fishing town of Aykawa in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, north-eastern Japan on Saturday morning. Despite the International Court of Justice’s recent order for Japan to cease all research whaling activities in the Antarctic Ocean, this whaling mission has gone ahead, towards the Sanriku coast, which is not covered by the International Court’s ruling.

Such ‘research whaling’ missions such as this one are intended to prove that the whale population is large enough to justify and sustain commercial hunting, hence its exclusion from the court ruling. However, some activists have suggested that the spring ‘research’ is nothing more than a way of continuing whaling through a loophole in the law.

The organizers of the whaling mission deliberated for some time over the specifics of the spring whaling event, eventually deciding  to proceed with research whaling this spring by cutting back on the number of mink whales to be caught by ten, from 61 to 51, due to the controversy surrounding the program.

The fleet’s departure marks the start of the country’s spring coastal whaling program, which has divided opinion across media across the world, attracting large amounts of criticism from anti-whaling countries such as Australia.

The scenes at the Ayukawa port, however, were far from hostile. In stark contrast to the departure of the wintertime Arctic hunt, which regularly sees violent protests from activists chasing down the fleet in an attempt to end the hunt, this weekend’s springtime departure was peaceful, with no protesters to be seen.

Japanese response to the International Court’s ruling was strongly mixed, falling ultimately in favour of the whaling fleets. Some Japanese governmental members dismissed the court’s ruling as nothing more than an example of cultural imperialism by the West, while local residents in Ayukawa expressed fears that the decision could ultimately ruin their livelihoods. Whaling forms a significant part of Japanese cultural heritage and economy, and is for many citizens a crucial source of income. Ayukawa was badly struck by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, and has been recovering ever since: many locals say that without whaling, the community’s entire existence would be put at risk.

“No matter what the (ICJ) court ruling was, all we can do is let everyone see that we’re still hanging in there,” said Koji Kato, a 22-year-old whaling crew member. “People from outside are saying a lot of things, but we want them to understand our perspective as much as possible. For me, whaling is more attractive than any other job.”

Tokyo has called off its next Antarctic hunt, scheduled for late 2014, and has said that it will be modifying the specifics of the mission in order to make it more scientific. But vessels would still go to the icy waters to carry out “nonlethal research,” raising the possibility that harpoon ships might return to the Antarctic the following year.

Sources include: Japan Times, Asahi Shinbun

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