Page last updated at 07:50 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 08:50 UK

Watching whalers and whales in Madeira

Remi Parmentier
Remi Parmentier

As a special working group of the International Whaling Commission meets this week, Pew Environment Group adviser Remi Parmentier says a thorny issue is Japan's position on whaling for scientific purposes. In this week's Green Room, he explains the merits of exploring a compromise that could potentially put the controversy to rest.

WhalMinke whale drawn in by Japanese ship (AP)
Whale watching and other non-lethal uses for tourist, educational and scientific purposes are far more profitable than whaling

After a year of meetings and conversations, a special working group of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) charged with solving the Gordian knot of whale conservation will officially request another year of work.

This request will take place at the IWC annual meeting this week on the Portuguese island of Madeira.

The tangled knot twists around the status of the moratorium on commercial whaling, which is being circumvented by Japan, as well as Norway and Iceland.

Since the moratorium began in 1986, IWC records show that more than 30,000 whales have been killed by a few remaining whaling countries.

Among the species targeted are some that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists as endangered, such as fin and sei whales, and vulnerable, such as sperm whales.

Under the international treaty of 1946 that governs the IWC, its member states do not need to ask IWC permission to allow the killing of whales if they claim that the purpose is scientific research.

In 1987, the Japanese government launched its first "scientific whaling" programme, targeting 300 minke whales in the Southern Ocean.

However, after the whales are sampled by Japanese scientists, the meat is sold like any other fisheries catch - or stored frozen when there is not enough demand.

Every year, Japan's "research" has expanded. Currently two programmes are conducted: in the North Pacific and the Southern Ocean, with a ceiling of roughly 1,400 whales of five different species.


In Madeira, Japan will once again be urged to agree to abandon its scientific whaling. This is a key requirement for countries opposing whaling.

One hook for Japan could be that in exchange for dropping scientific whaling, the IWC could authorise some whaling by Japan's small coastal whalers around the Japanese coast, under IWC supervision and management.

Some think that this could be a win-win scenario.

Countries in the southern hemisphere that demand an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean, an area declared a sanctuary for whales by the IWC in 1994, could be satisfied that whales there would not be hunted, and that Japanese coastal whaling would come back under the control of the IWC.

Minke whale (SPL)

At the same time, the Japanese delegation could return home, claiming that their advocacy on behalf of coastal whalers has been heard, that the underwriting of its costly whaling operations will stop, and that the decades-long international wrangling over its whaling in the high seas, which has been bad for Japan's reputation worldwide, will end.

The IWC could also move on to newer problems that face whales, such as toxic and noise pollution, climate change, collisions with ships and entrapment in fishing nets.

A former spokesperson for Japan's Foreign Affairs Ministry, Tomohiko Taniguchi, made an almost identical proposal in a landmark article published in a Japanese magazine earlier this year.

Mr Taniguchi has said publicly what many of his colleagues presumably think quietly, which is that Japan's national interest "is not served by losing friends needlessly as a result of stubbornly insisting on fighting an unwinnable war".

Employment opportunities

But a positive response from Japan in the negotiations has been elusive.

And whether everyone on all sides of the issue can live with such a compromise is unclear. There are concerns that this could open a Pandora's box with other countries that may also be keen to engage in coastal whaling.

South Korea, for example, has suggested for some time that if Japan is allowed to go whaling in the Sea of Japan, which the Koreans call the East Sea, they would want to do so as well.

The Pew Environment Group would prefer that commercial whaling be brought to an end altogether.

ut we see merit in the proposal flagged by Mr Taniguchi and others, to offer an immediate way forward because maintaining the status quo is untenable.

Japanese scholars have also argued that in the longer term, once government subsidies for scientific whaling are gone, the reality of the market might well precipitate the end of whaling.

Norwegian whaling ship
A concession to Japan may spark controversy with other countries

Whale watching and other non-lethal uses for tourist, educational and scientific purposes are far more profitable than whaling.

The people of the island of Madeira, where the IWC is meeting this year, pride themselves on having ended their traditional whaling in the mid-1980s.

Now, whale-watching contributes more to the local economy than whale hunting did, and this form of eco-tourism creates employment for former whale hunters and boatmen. The same could be true for Japan as well.

If the IWC decides this week to continue the dialogue on the future of whale conservation, this annual meeting in Madeira may exhaust its agenda fairly quickly, waiting for Japan to come back with some serious proposals.

If so, instead of going home early, it might be a good idea for delegates to pursue their conversations informally on board Madeira's whale watching boats, and see for themselves that there is no need to kill whales to make money.

Remi Parmentier is a senior policy adviser to the Pew Environment Group, which organised several symposia in the last two years to enhance dialogue within the IWC

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Remi Parmentier? Is an authorisation of some whaling by Japan a road to further controversy with other nations? Is whale watching a viable economic alternative to whale hunting, given their culinary value?

I have no problem with sustainable whaling. Why should I? I eat animals. I wear animal products. I see no reason to be any more attached to whales than any other wild animal - and as long as preservation and protections are in place, then a limited amount of whaling is fine by me. With whales, we nearly brought them to the brink of extinction - now some species are recovering, why not harvest one every now and again? Better to set up a legitimate, restrained and honourable way of harvesting than the current "scientific whaling" scam, which does not seem to have any upper limits imposed at all. I honestly don't get why some people get so hysterical about whaling.
Robert, UK

I do not think that Japan should stop its annual whale hunting. As far as I know, they have never said they were going to kill off the whales. They are serious and diligent people, so I believe they are able to make a good use of whales. We should stop being hypocrites and pay more attention to our own problems. Let's focus on the situation we encounter in the west, particularly in English-speaking countries, that we are killing tens of thousands of mammals and poultries in industrial farms everyday, and consuming the meat until we become awfully obese, despite many people in other parts of the world are suffering from hunger.
Khaj, Canada

matsumoto of tokyo you are factually incorrect, the government of japan subsidises whaling. whether it is your 'view' or not is immaterial; millions of your tax yen are given to these people to continue an unprofitable enterprise. feelings on whaling aside, do you not object to this stubborn wasting of public money, especially when japan has the second highest public debt (%GDP) in the world?
Ben, Okayama, Japan

Yes, I support the point of view of Remi Parmentier, but somehow I feel that neither whale hunting nor whale watching is suitable. The need is to demarcate and protect the marine areas for the whales and for other marine life too. Jobs may be created in habitat development, protection and vigilance of the marine life. Also, we need to control the over fishing on the basis of proper assessments of 'catch shares' of the commercial fisheries. As Kyoto protocol is signed in Japan, they should meet all the environment commitments and come clean in Madeira IWC meeting.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

Another closely issue to this is the killing of sharks, including endangered sharks, (small and large, plankton eating sharks and whale sharks included) for their fins, to make shark fin soup popular in China and Taiwan. The population of sharks worldwide is declining so rapidly apparently there are only 2 sanctuary's left for sharks off central america and in both of them illegal shark fishing is now occurring by Taiwanese boats. If you have ever seen footage off a shark being killed and its fin cut off and it is thrown back into the water where it dies because it can no longer swim, its truely barbaric.
Simone Du-Toilete, Sydney, Australia

I really disagree with you Matsumoto. I used to work in the Sydney bureau of the Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan's largest paper) and I know work at a foreign policy organisation. Japan's reputation has been hugely affected by the whaling issue in Australia and New Zealand because they hunt whales so close to our coast and kill whales that should be migrating down our coast every year from May-November and we have a blooming whalewatching industry. Australia has taken photos of thousands of whales that migrate down our coast, each whale has a different skin shading, like a fingerprint so you can identify each whale individually. Each year some of the whales from this huge database don't come back to our coast because they are killed by whales. All of the whales have been named and there are a few with very unique colouring, especially the albino whales, that have become local celebrities and are always in the newspapers! I did articles for The Yomiuri on this although it was hard to get them printed in Japan because its such a thorny issue there. Whales are not farmable animals, are not in abundance and most are endangered and I decided last year, as did many friends I know not to re-visit Japan until this issue is sorted which is sad because I really want to but this issue is important to me.
Danielle Kove, Sydney, Australia

Whales are big ugly and stupid but they taste very good. We should hunt all the whales to stop them making our oceans dumb, they have an effect on the fish which can be seen easily in the low IQ's of Tuna fish.
Jenkem, Kyoto Japan

The only win-win scenario is if Japan bans whaling completely. The whales win their life, the tax payers win their money, the whale-eaters win their health back (no more mercury consumption) the whale watchers win their whale watch trips, the IWC will win time to focus on other pressing issues, the whalers will win self-esteem due to admiration from tourists and animal friends and best of all the Japanese decision makers will win lots and lots of respect internationally which will benefit each and every Japanese citizen. Example is leadership, positive example is positive leadership.
Mercedes De Windt, Complete whaling ban is the only win-win scenario.

People who dislike whaling are hardly a noisy minority, rather I view it to be the complete opposite. I tend to find those who are indifferent to whaling also tend to be indifferent to the plight of most species on this planet, period.
Rich, Boston, MA

if the japanese etc want to hunt whales for "Research" does that mean our navy can start hunting they're whalers for "research" in the same manner that they hunt whales, of course not, it goes against international law, so whats the difference, if you want to research whales, for scientific purposes your going to learn alot more from a LIVING whale than a DEAD one
Alex, Sydney, Australia

I find it barbaric that whaling still occurs in this world. Simply put, I look at whaling-proponents as ignorant and backwards. This practice of killing wild whales for their meat, which we do not by any standard need, must end immediately. If Japan wishes to continue, I believe it should be embargoed and banned from international assemblies, such as the UN and G8.
James Graydon, Farmington, CT USA

not withstanding that some whale species remain endangered and must be fully protected there are in principal enough other whale species for people to watch and for a few to be hunted and eaten under a sustainable whale management programm. we cannot have every nutty bleeding heart group impose their will on the rest of the world.
dereck OConow, Toronto Canada

The Killing of Whales needs to END...period. Japan isn't doing research, they kill to market the meat. Japan needs to "Honor" up and stop lying once and for all. Stop hiding behind that they "kill for research"......Please! You would have to be an idiot to believe their lies. Maybe we should all go to Japan and start killing off Pandas...
Denise, Cape Coral, FL/ USA

slowly, but surely, killing sea mammals will end. The Japanese are a sophisticated people, like the white S. Africans they do not wish to be the scum who kills inorder to dominate and rule. whales are much more than we realise, we still think of them as inferior beings, astonishing, yes!
S.Ireland, glasgow

No. Not on the comprimise to continue coastal whaling around Japan. Take into account that Korea wants in on the action and the tension between the Japanese and Koreans, as i am told. There is too much talking and not enough action. Whaling should be abolished. There is no need for it. I doubt that Japan will back down on this one because they have not in the past. Valiant effort though. I do however agree that the whale watching would be a more viable option.
Dana Diotte, Nelson, BC, Canada

Any reduction in whaling is better than none, but a total ban must be strived for. As many know from wartimes experiences, whale meat is not a culinery delight. As beautiful living creatures in their natural habitats, however, they are wonderful to behold. Come on Japan, Norway & Iceland - give up the killing & gain some respect around the world.
Karen Peach, Nr. Sevenoaks, Kent. UK

How can this be called a win-win when whales are still being killed. These concessions create a slippery slope, and not just with regard to Korea - any nation with a few whales off their coast might suddenly want to revive an outmoded "cherished cultural tradition" of whaling. What's more, Japan will always harvest cetaceans from their coastal waters -as they always have- with or without the IWC's blessings. These animals already face enough challenges in the form of pollution, ship collisions, net entanglements, prey shortages and Navy testing. The last thing they need is continued pressure from Japan (and Norway and Iceland) to feed a superficial and novelty market.
Shervin, New York, NY

No whale hunting should be allowed, especially under the 'scientific' banner. Whale watching would be an excellent way to replace the income lost to hunting, but there are deeper issues to address, which may be the stumbling block. We have seen this previously decades ago with seal hunting. Trade boycotts should he considered also for whaling nations.
jacqui mansell, woking

Whales belong to the the entire planet...we cannot allow barbarian nations to kill them without consequences...why protect them if they will finish in some sushi.
Dom Desjardins, Sherbrooke, Canada

As a nation that has plundered the ocean of cod and other fish, who are we to tell the Japanese that they can no longer eat whale meat. As a vegetarian, I detest the killing of any animal, however, I accept that it is not up to me to decide what others do and do not eat. The Japanese have eaten whale meat for centuries - let them get on with it.
Nik, Preston, England

this will not change japan's feelings about whaling, the reason being that for japan, it's not about the whales. i've lived in japan for 6 years now, ask the average person if they like whale and the very few who've tried it say it's oily an they don't really care for it. i've not once seen it for sale in a restaurant or supermarket, though i've heard places that sell it can be found if u look hard enough. to understand why then the whaling issue is such a big deal, you have to understand the japanese people. they are a deeply nostalgic people who cherish old things and old ways. there are plenty of unused plots of land all over the country, despite a food self-sufficiency shortfall, high land prices and high tax on unused land. vereyone i've asked has given me the same answer: "no i can't sell it, my ancestors would be angry". so then ask not the average person but the older generation about whale, and they don't tell u if they like it or not, but about how it was in their school lunch when they were young and conclude with an anecdote about the wonderful summer festivals of those days. so then we can understand that no matter how unpopular or unprofitable whaling is, the japanese will keep it up simply because those who came before them did, and that it won't die until all those for whom whale meat brings fond memories the past do.
Ben, Okayama, Japan

what culinary value? isn't it enough that we have a wide array of other species to eat? human greed and hubris is choking our planet to death.
narike, cape town

Whale watching is a more than just viable alternative to whale hunting. The culinary value of whales is not such as to warrant hunting them to extinction. As with other forms of wildlife with a culinary value, one would need to consider whether 'whale farming' is an option - which it is very probably not. Whale meat is not noted amongst gourmets as being particularly desirable; even if it were, it could simply be banned from consumption (remember the turtle soup matter!). Whichever way one looks at it, whale hunting is simply unnecessary.
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

All whaling should be banned ! as of NOW ! NO compromises ! efforts should be focused on facilitating eco-tourism in the remaining whaling countries. I would like a focus on the ongoing fin-whale and minkie whale killings in Iceland.
Kristin Cecilsdottir, Reykjavik, Iceland

As someone who supports the notion of sustainable utilisation of whale resources, I would point out that "underwriting of its costly whaling operations" is not a view that is widely held amongst the Japanese population. I would be very surprised if Japanese officials at the IWC meeting were under the impression that they bring this kind of "trophy" home and expect congratulations. Nor do I agree that Japan's reputation worldwide has been particularly effected due to Japan's persistent desire to see whales utilised like all other marine resources. I have many non-Japanese acquaintences and I believe that few (if any) of them have their perceptions of Japan seriously altered by Japan's whaling activities. Indeed, I know several non-Japanese who have taken the opportunity to try whale cuisine while in Japan. People who dislike whaling seem to be a noisy minority group. I hope the BBC also invites someone from the sustainable utilisation camp to provide the alternate perspective on the IWC future talks.
Matsumoto, Tokyo, Japan

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