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Japanese whalers returned to port Monday with their first catch after resuming commercial whaling for the first time in 31 years.

Whaling and consuming whale meat is a long-cherished goal of traditionalists. They see whaling as largely a lost cause amid slowing demand for the meat and changing views on conservation.

A fleet of five boats brought back two minke whales. A crane lifted the catch and slowly placed those on the back of a truck to be taken to a portside factory for processing. Workers in blue plastic overalls poured sake from paper cups onto the first whale to express thanks and celebrate the first catch.

They began the killing voyage

Japan’s first ships embarked on the commercial whale hunt in 31 years sailed out of port despite international condemnation of the move.

The hunting fleet left the northern Japanese port of Kushiro earlier Monday.

The mother boat Nisshin-maru and two support boats that used to go to the Antarctic will travel within Japan’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to catch minke, Bryde’s and sei whales.

Five other smaller ships will stay closer to the coast but also hunt minkes, in addition to Baird’s beaked whales and dolphins that they used to catch under an IWC loophole.

The move to commence commercial whaling follows Japan’s decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Japan has long maintained few of the species it wants to hunt are endangered, had given its notice to do so in December last year. The decision became official on Sunday.

Japan’s departure from the IWC was the culmination of years of campaigning by industry supporters and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose constituency includes a city that has traditionally been a base for whaling.

The last time Japanese ships went out on a commercial hunt of whales was in 1988. In the years since Japan claimed all whaling activities were for research purposes.

Japan’s Fisheries Agency said the catch quota for 2019 would be limited to whales in its EEZs. The quota was set at 227 whales.

This is fewer than the 333 whales Japan hunted in the Antarctic in recent years.

Hideki Moronuki, a Fisheries Agency official and a chief negotiator at the IWC, said Japan’s commercial whaling would never harm its stock and it would stick to a very strict catch quota with respect to the IWC findings, and continue conducting research.

As the boats left port, whalers, their families and local officials in two major whaling towns, Shimonoseki in southwestern Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s electoral constituency, and Kushiro in the north, celebrated the fresh start.

Deputy Chief cabinet secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters in Tokyo the move would contribute to local prosperity.

Officials said the catch of the two minke whales was a nice surprise because they were not thought to be in the area and whalers were expecting Monday’s trip to be only ceremonial.

While the resumption of commercial whaling is condemned by many conservation groups, others see it as a face-saving way to let the government’s embattled and expensive whaling program gradually succumb to changing times and tastes.

Fisheries Agency officials said the whale meat will be auctioned at a local fish market Thursday and later hit stores, mainly in the region but possibly in Tokyo.

Whalers are hoping for a special price for the historic meat that is higher than the average 2,000 yen per kilogram ($18 per 2.2 pounds) that their counterparts from Antarctic research whaling used to get.

A few hundred involved

Despite the massive attention, tax income and political support from ruling party politicians, whaling in Japan involved only a few hundred persons and accounted for less than 0.1 per cent of total meat consumption in the year to April 2018, according to the latest government data on food sufficiency.

Whale meat was an affordable source of protein during the lean times after the Second World War, with consumption peaking at 223,000 tons in 1962 before it started being replaced with other meats.

It had dropped to 6,000 tons in 1986, a year before the commercial whaling moratorium imposed by the IWC.

Japan began whaling for scientific research in 1987, which it insisted was carried out to gather crucial population data, and abandoned commercial whaling the following year.

Under the research hunts, catches peaked at 1,200 whales, but that number has seen a sharp decline in recent years after international protests escalated and whale meat consumption slumped at home.

These hunts were condemned by many who believed they were just a cover for commercial hunts as the meat was sold on the market.

Today, about 4,000-5,000 tons are supplied to Japan annually, or 30-40 grams of whale meat consumed per person a year, Fisheries Agency officials say.

In the move to commercial whaling, those whales caught in coastal waters are expected to be brought back for fresh local consumption at any of six local whaling hubs that are mainly in northern Japan but include Taiji, the home constituency of ruling Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai.

The town was also known for dolphin hunts because of the documentary film “The Cove.”

Whale meat caught further off the coast will be frozen and distributed for wider consumption.

Fisheries Agency official Hideki Moronuki said the fate of commercial whaling depended on whether whale meat was widely accepted by consumers, as subsidies it used to get are no longer available.

He hoped whale meat would be reasonably priced so it would gain popularity in the long term instead of becoming an expensive delicacy for a limited clientele.

In 1988, Japan switched to what it called research whaling after commercial whaling was banned by the IWC.

Two groups will carry out the commercial whaling. The mother factory ship Nisshin-maru and two support boats that used to go to the Antarctic will travel to Japan’s EEZ to catch minke, Bryde’s and sei whales. Five other smaller ships will stay closer to the coast but also hunt minkes, in addition to 168 Baird’s beaked and two other kinds of small whales they used to catch outside of IWC jurisdiction. Altogether, they are to catch 52 minkes, 150 Bryde’s and 25 sei whales through Dec. 31.

Japan government plans to provide 5 billion yen ($46 million) for projects to help stabilize commercial whaling, including development of rich whale hunting grounds and research and development in the first few years, officials said.

The government used to sell whale meat caught in the scientific program for school lunch programs at discounted prices, said an official.

Ultimately, the resumption of traditional whaling may end up saving large government subsidies and the lives of many whales, experts say.

“What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling,” said Patrick Ramage, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It is a win-win solution that results in a better situation for whales, a better situation for Japan, a better situation for international marine conservation efforts and is therefore to be welcomed.”

Whaling is losing support in other whaling nations including Norway and Iceland, where whalers have cut back on catches in recent years amid criticism that commercial hunts are bad for their national image and tourism.

Iceland caught only 17 whales, while Norway hunted 432 in the 2017-2018 season, way below their catch quota of 378 and 1,278 respectively, according to the IWC.

Japanese are also beginning to see ecotourism as a better option for whales than hunting them for food.

“People in coastal communities all do better when whales are seen and not hurt,” Ramage said.


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