Japan's declining appetite for whale meat is nothing new; but is the country also losing patience with its whaling industry? The answer is yes, according to a new report that highlights the huge cost to the Japanese taxpayer of sustaining its whaling fleet. Without government subsidies, the industry would collapse, it said.
"Whaling is an unprofitable business that can survive only with substantial subsidies and one that caters to an increasingly shrinking and aging market," according to the report, released earlier this month by the International Fund for Animal Welfare(IFAW).
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According to data provided for the first time by fisheries authorities, Japan's government has approved subsidies totaling more than 30 billion yen ($320 million) between 1987 and last year.
The fleet of between four and six vessels that leaves for the Antarctic every winter costs the taxpayer about $10 million dollars a year, according to IFAW. Last year the subsidy included 2.28 billion yen ($20 million) in funds intended to aid the reconstruction of the region devastated by the March 2011 tsunami. The government's excuse: that some of the affected communities had a tradition of coastal whale hunting.
With thousands of tons of whale meat left unsold amid a dramatic decline in consumption, the government can never hope to recoup its investment, said Patrick Ramage, director of IFAW's whale program.
"Whaling is an economic loser in the 21st century," he said. "We have been saying for years that whaling has no economic future, but here it is in black and white in this report."
The document details the steady decline in whale meat consumption since its peak in the 1960s, and the rising cost of keeping the aging whaling fleet seaworthy.
Polling conducted on IFAW's behalf by E-Square, a Japanese public research company, shows that whale meat consumption has fallen to about 1 percent of its peak in the 1960s. Current stockpiles of unsold produce have increased to nearly 5,000 metric tons, about four times greater than they were 15 years ago.
In late 2011, the government tried to shift some of the stockpile by holding public auctions, yet 75 percent of the meat remained unsold, according to figures compiled by the journalist Junko Sakuma.
The Cetacean Research Institute, a quasi-governmental body that oversees the scientific hunts, claims the aims of the whaling program are strictly scientific and that it was never intended as a commercial venture.
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The International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986, but a clause in the moratorium allows Japan to kill more than 900 whales every winter and to sell the meat on the open market. The idea is to use the profits to fund the following winter's slaughter in the Southern Ocean.
"Shrinking demand and slow sales show that this is a declining industry," said Toru Watanabe, a policy analyst who chaired the team that drafted the E-Square report. "For these and other structural reasons, whaling is not economically sustainable."
Despite claims by supporters that whale consumption is a deep-seated culinary tradition, the biggest obstacle in the way of a commercially viable industry is the Japanese consumer: almost 89 percent of Japanese had not bought whale meat in the previous 12 months, according to an IFAW survey released late last year.
In addition, more than 50 percent of Japanese had no opinion on their country's whaling program, while 26.8 percent said they supported it and 18.5 percent were opposed.
Those figures hardly point to an emphatic rejection of a tradition its supporters say stretches back hundreds of years, but campaigners claim the public's patience with large-scale Antarctic whaling is wearing thin.
"Even people who support whaling oppose the use of taxpayer's money going into the industry, particularly money that was intended for the tsunami recovery effort," said Naoko Funahashi, IFAW's representative in Japan.