Page last updated at 17:54 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 18:54 UK

Turning tide of whaling opinion

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Greenpeace activists, January 2008

Who has "won" the battle between the Japanese whalers and the environmentalists who set out to disrupt their hunt?

Japan only managed to catch 60% of its quota of whales this season and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the organisation whose members clashed most violently with the Japanese whaling fleet, said it had "saved" hundreds of whales.

But Greenpeace, the other conservation group who tailed the Japanese fleet through the waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, pointed out that 551 whales were still caught this year - still considerably more than the 440 caught three years ago.

The Japanese seemed unwilling to be filmed or photographed whaling and so just tailing them closely was enough to disrupt operations for days at a time

Japan's quotas have been far greater in the past couple of years than they used to be.

Clearly, though, this year has still seen many setbacks for Japanese whalers.

Officials originally said they were targeting 850 minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpbacks.

Within weeks Tokyo changed its mind about the humpbacks - which had been protected by international agreements for decades - in what Japan described as a gesture to try to pacify its opponents.

Violent clashes

Then when the fleet sailed to the hunting ground it became clear that the protesters, particularly those from the Sea Shepherd group, planned to use whatever means they could to disrupt the hunt.

In January two activists boarded a Japanese vessel. That prompted a stand-off that suited the environmental group.

The Japanese demanded assurances they would not be attacked if they approached the Sea Shepherd vessel to return its two crew members. The environmentalists refused to co-operate. In the end an Australian customs vessel had to act as a go-between and shuttle the men from one ship to the other.

The biggest concern for the Japanese whalers may be the financial costs of not fulfilling their quota

Disruption cost the hunt 31 days in total, over the winter.

When one or other Japanese ship was dealing with protesters, it was difficult for the rest of the fleet to continue the hunt.

There were further clashes, some violent, between the Sea Shepherd protesters and the whalers.

Greenpeace activists were also involved in efforts to stop the whaling taking place.

The Japanese seemed unwilling to be filmed or photographed whaling, and so just tailing them closely was enough to disrupt operations for days at a time.

Now Japan says "sabotage" by activists "was a major factor behind our failure to achieve our target".

But a fisheries agency official made clear it was not the only factor. He said few fin whales were spotted, another reason why none of them were caught.

But nevertheless, for the first time in 20 years protesters are being blamed for Japan's failure to meet its quota.

No softened stance

Professor Stephen Hesse from Japan's Chuo University thinks some officials believe the international community will give them credit for culling fewer whales than they had planned to.

Japanese whaling ship, file image
Japan's political opposition may be warming to an anti-whaling stance

"Perhaps they will think this will get them some sympathy, that this will play well for the government, that it will give a sense of the injustice they have been subjected to," he says.

If that is the case, it is probably a miscalculation.

The clashes on the high seas this winter have caused problems for Japan's diplomats who have been forced to spend a lot of time on this.

There is no sense that as Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd makes plans for a visit to Japan in a few weeks time there will be any softening of his very tough line on whaling.

The biggest concern for the Japanese whalers may be the financial costs of not fulfilling their quota.

Although this is scientific whaling, the meat is sold to consumers to try to defray some of the costs of the whaling industry.

The shortfall is made up by a subsidy from the Japanese taxpayer.

If they caught just 60% of what they had hoped to, it is reasonable to conclude their income will fall by 40%.

It is unlikely that bringing home fewer whales from the Southern Ocean will raise prices because of a shortage of supply. There is reported to be a glut in the market already.

So if Japan wants to continue whaling on the same kind of scale it will require a larger subsidy from the taxpayer.

That will not necessarily be that easy for the bureaucrats from the fisheries agency to secure from their colleagues in the Finance Ministry. Japan's public finances are in a mess.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) controls the upper house of parliament and can block any extra public spending should it want to.

The DPJ has accepted a petition against whaling organised by the Australian media and made sympathetic noises.

Already anti-whaling campaigners in Japan had begun to shift their focus from trying to persuade people here that whaling was wrong, to making clear to them how much they have to pay for it in taxes whether they support it or not.

Now there might be a rare opportunity to encourage public debate here about the issue if more taxes are needed to prop up an industry that may not otherwise survive.

But do not underestimate the whalers' determination to carry on.

The message the environmental campaigners will take away from this is that if chasing and being close to the ships forced the Japanese to suspend whaling and made such a considerable dent in their quota this winter, then next winter they will want to find ways to stay in Antarctica even longer.

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