Published on Sunday, July 30, 2000 in the London Observer
Fury As Japan Unleashes Its Harpoons On Endangered Whales
by Robin McKie
The four boats that slipped out of the Japanese ports of Shimonoseki, Inonshina and Shiyogawa yesterday provoked no interest, no crowds, and no announcement of their destination. They looked for all the world like boats heading for local fishing grounds. But these ships were on a mission that is very far from being innocent. Over the next 24 hours they will rendezvous at sea and proceed on a task that will engulf their country in criticism and bitter disapproval: the resumption of the hunting of some of the world's largest and most endangered whales.

Despite last-minute personal pleas from Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to the Japanese Prime Minister, the vessels are scheduled to kill a total of 100 minke, 50 Brydes (pronounced brooder) and 10 sperm whales in the North Pacific in the next few days. It is the biggest catch attempted since a world ban on whaling was introduced two decades ago. According to Japan's Fisheries Agency, the aim is merely to study the eating and migratory behaviour of the animals. The fact that their meat will then be sold to local markets in Japan is merely a by-product, it claims.

Yesterday most world leaders and environmentalists lined up to denounce this claim. 'The bottom line is that there is no convincing scientific reason for the Japanese to kill any whales at all,' said Helen Clark, the New Zealand Prime Minister. 'It is well known that meat from the whales killed during these 'scientific' expeditions finishes up at Japanese dinner tables. That's what appals people.'

Sperm whales - the giant toothed whales immortalised by Herman Melville in Moby Dick - have the largest brains of any mammal, and also the most valuable flesh. The Japanese eat it raw - for 20 a slice in Tokyo restaurants. The fact that Japan has decided to kill Brydes and sperm - which are much larger than the minkes that they have already hunted 'scientifically' over the past few years - has provoked particular fury. These animals require processing in large factory ships that are currently banned under International Whaling Commission rules.

'This raises the spectre of a return to the sort of big-time whaling that drove many species of whales to the brink of extinction over the past century,' said Richard Mott, vice-president of the World Wildlife Fund.

Three high-powered catcher boats will form the first wave of attack against the whales. As they approach one of the giant animals, a harpoon with an explosive head will be fired at its head, shattering its cerebral cortex. The carcass will then be pulled back to the catcher boat, before being brought to the foruth boat, the factory ship. Then the whale will be dragged up its main ramp and butchered. By the time the fleet returns to Japan in a few weeks, all whale meat will have been boxed ready for selling.

The prospect of this butchery has enraged Western leaders and officials. Last week Tony Blair and President Clinton both spoke person ally to Japan's Prime Minister and pressed him to reconsider his country's decision - to no avail.

'This decision is a slap in the face of President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair and many others around the world who have been working to persuade Japan to cancel its plans,' said Fred O'Regan, president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. This view was shared by Richard Page, whale campaigner for Greenpeace. 'Japan clearly has no interest in the future of whale populations or world opinion,' he said. Japan's proposal to increase the intensity of its whaling missions was opposed bitterly at the last meeting of the International Whaling Commision which passed a resolution condemning the plan. For its part, Japan has rejected the motion.

'This is really an aggressive move by Japan,' said Rolland Schmitten, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce. 'These whales do not have to be killed for science.' This view was backed by a UK Ministry of Agriculture official. 'We are completely opposed to this. It flies in the face of world opinion,' he said.

The widening rift between Western nations and Japan shows that the latter's small but powerful whaling lobby now threatens to isolate the nation utterly. Japanese politicians believe that their relatively small scientific whaling missions are actually helping to pave the way for a return to full commercial whaling in the near future. Japan even pressed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in April to remove many whales species from its 'Appendix One' category so that limited hunting of these animals, and trading in their products, could be resumed. However, the bid was squashed by a huge majority of countries, suggesting that, far from paving the way for the resumption of commercial whaling, Japan's antics are hardening the rest of the world to its stance.

At this month's whaling commission annual meeting in Adelaide, an attempt to create a whale sanctuary in the South Pacific was narrowly defeated - largely thanks to Japan's open offers of aid to countries in Africa and the Caribbean in return for their votes at the conference.

However, observers believe that at next year's meeting, in London, even this tactic will fail.

The hunted

Northern right whale: up to 59ft long and 80 tonnes in weight.

Status: it is heavily hunted and numbers may be as low as 350.

Minke whale: up to 33ft long and 10 tonnes in weight.

Status: insufficient data, but it is the only whale which is hunted commercially.

Sperm whale: up to 60ft long and 50 tonnes. Numbers have dropped to a sixth of the million which existed at the turn of the century.

Status: vulnerable.

Blue whale: up to 88ft long and 120 tonnes. Only 460 left from the turn of the century population of a quarter of a million.

Status: endangered.

Bryde's whale: up to 72ft long and 80 tonnes in weight. There used to be 78,000, but no one knows its status now.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000