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Japan Spends Heavily to Keep Whaling Industry Afloat, Report Says

February 7th, 2013 World

TOKYO — A wildlife conservation group said in a report on Wednesday that Japan has been propping up its whaling industry with nearly $ 400 million in tax money in recent years, stepping up subsidies even as consumption of whale meat here has slumped.

The report, compiled by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in Yarmouth Port, Mass., challenges assertions by the Japanese government that whaling is a tradition with wide support among Japanese consumers.

Instead, government figures tallied in the report paint a picture of a struggling industry employing fewer than 1,000 people and dependent on public handouts, including money meant for reconstruction after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Most Japanese consumers have turned away from whale meat. The industry shipped just 5,000 tons in 2011, compared with 233,000 tons at the peak in 1962, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Demand this year is so low that the industry has cut its planned shipments by half, to 2,400 tons.

“Whaling is unprofitable, and survives only with substantial subsidies, something cultural and nationalist arguments for whaling obscure,” said Patrick Ramage, the director of the animal welfare fund’s whale program. He said the country would be better off economically and ecologically if it promoted whale-watching tourism instead of hunting whales.

Japan’s Fisheries Agency declined to comment on the report, saying it had not yet studied its contents.

But an official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there was “nothing wrong with these subsidies, which fund an important program,” though it was “not the government’s responsibility to make whaling economically viable.”

A world moratorium on commercial whaling took effect in 1986, but Japan has taken advantage of an exception allowing whaling for research purposes to continue hunting, though environmental activists who chase whaling boats have made those hunts increasingly difficult. Japan has captured and killed more than 14,000 whales since the moratorium began.

The meat from the whales is sold off as “byproducts” of research, and it makes its way to supermarkets, restaurants and even school lunches. A government Web site says the most popular whale dishes are fried whale, whale sashimi and medium-rare whale steak.

According to figures from the Institute of Cetacean Research, the nonprofit organization set up to run the whaling program, income from whale meat has failed to cover the costs of whaling for the past five years. So subsidies have been increased, and some disaster aid has been diverted to the industry, prompting a public outcry.

The dire financial picture prompted the government to announce a plan last year to cut costs by reducing the annual catch and to sell more whale meat directly to schools for lunches. But experts doubt that those measures will make the whaling industry self-sufficient again. 

“The Japanese government has desperately defended whaling for years, but the question has increasingly become: for what?” said Yusuke Saskata, a professor of environmental economics at Kinki University in Osaka. “Supporting whaling culture is one thing, but maintaining whaling at this scale makes no sense.”

Hisako Ueno contributed research.