Whaling Season & Whale School

Opening Day of whale season!
On June 20, whaling season began in the small town of Wada, on the tip of the Bōsō Peninsula, a hundred miles southeast of Tokyo. The start of whale season is a community event that includes ‘Whale School’, the hunt itself and a public flensing (cleaning) of the whale. After the flensing, the town feasts on the first whale of the season. Mr. Yosinori Shoji, President of Gaibo Hogei Corporation, LTD, leads these events (photo 1).

Photo 1: Wada town map and display of three Baird’s beaked whales, Berardius bairdii, Wadaura train station. 

Shoji-san comes from a family of whalers. A fire in the 1930’s burned the local temple and so obscured the history of his family and of whaling in Wada. [In Japan, temples house the town’s records, much like churches in Europe.] As a young man, Shoji-san spent several years in Seattle (University of Washington) and Los Angeles learning the seafood business. He eventually returned to Wada to take over his father’s whaling company.

Wada is one of four towns in Japan that conducts coastal whaling. In Wada they primarily target Baird’s beaked whale, Berardius bairdii. These whales are the deepest of divers and the largest beaked whale, up to 40 feet (12m) in length (see photo 2). Little is known of their ecology and behavior, but they are relatively common in this area. Japan’s coastal fishery takes up to 60 of these whales per year.

Photo 2: The skull of a Baird’s beaked whale on display in the town of Wada. The whale was 33 feet (10m) long and weighed 22,000 lb (10 metric tons).

Ayukawahama is another small whaling town up the coast. It was completely destroyed by the tsunami on March 11, 2011. Shoji-san has a branch office there. Fortunately, none of his employees were harmed, and his boat was in Osaka at that time. However, the whaling season in Ayukawahama was cancelled this year. There are also concerns of radiation in the marine food chain that may affect whales. These pressures on coastal whaling added significance to the opening of Wada’s whaling season.

Whale School: Why We Whale
Shoji-san visits local schools to talk about whales and whaling at the start of each season. This year, he invited me to provide an American perspective on whaling. Reiko and I went to Wada on Wednesday, June 15. There we met Shoji-san and Mr. Shigetoshi Nishiwaki, Director of the Survey Division of Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research. Nishikwaki-san leads the six-month long research voyages to the Southern Ocean each year. After 19 years of these voyages, he has as much first hand knowledge of whales as any active researcher. Over a feast that included a variety of raw and cooked fish, whale and other dishes, I learned of Shoji-san’s business, current conditions of whales in the Southern Ocean, and stories of the ‘whale wars’ as told from a Japanese perspective. Nishiwaki-san works on the research whaling boats targeted by the crew of Sea Shepherd.

The next day we spoke to forty fifth-grade students at Wada Elementary school in the morning, and about eighty eighth-grade students at Wada Junior High school in the afternoon. Also present were two journalists and a film crew, as well as several teachers and parents (see photo 3). Nishiwaki-san captivated the fifth-graders with his presentation about whale and dolphin biology. He displayed a chart that showed the many uses of whales: 18 distinct body parts are used to create 36 products (see photo 4). The highlight of his talk was a section about whale sounds and hearing that included a chance for students to “hear like a whale.” Whales receive sound waves along their jaw bones and transmit them to the inner ear (see photo 5).

Photo 3: Mr. Yosinori Shoji opens this year’s Whale School at Wada Elementary School. Behind him is Mr. Shigetoshi Nishiwaki, Director, Survey Division, Institute of Cetacean Research.

photo 4: The many uses of a single whale. This chart shows 18 whale parts that go into the creation of 36 final products.

Photo 5: Students attempt to “hear like a whale,” through their jaw bone. Nishiwaki-san speaks into a microphone from behind one teacher. The student has a small speaker held to his chin. Another teacher covers his ears from behind. Students were able to hear through their chin!

I followed with a short history of whaling in America, emphasizing our rich whaling history (e.g. sperm whale fishery and Moby Dick), modern lack of whaling and the “Flipper Effect.” I concluded that most people in America do not have strong views about whaling, except for “dolphin lovers” that consider dolphins “friends” or “special.” I also told them that most of my biology students considered it okay to whale, as long as it was done sustainably. [I gave a survey to some of my students via Facebook prior to my presentation.]

At Wada Junior High School I spoke first (same presentation; see photo 6). Shoji-san told the students he was happy to hear that my American students were concerned about sustainability. He respects the life of the whales he hunts, and thanks them for providing us with food. Each whale he catches feeds hundreds to thousands of people. He also spoke about his position within the food chain; the circle of life. He happens to be a whaler, and they are few. He accepts his role and respectfully accepts the food from the sea.

Photo 6: Whale school speakers at Wada Junior High School from left to right: Nishiwaki-san, myself and Shoji-san

Nishiwaki-san’s eighth-grade talk, “From Whaling to Protecting Whaling” emphasized sustainable whaling and broader environmental issues. In part, it was a response to the anti-whaling criticism Japan receives from the west. The first part of his talk compared and contrasted Japanese whaling to environmental impacts of western culture. Then he gave a detailed description of his research methods used to monitor whale populations.

He began with a history of whaling and its relationship to the industrial revolution. For example, whales were critical to the industrial revolution as a source of glycerin, used to make dynamite that allowed for greater coal mining. He went on to describe the many environmental pollutants created by the west’s industrial revolution. Of particular significance are the greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change. He described the Kyoto Protocol and the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He told the students, ‘Only one nation refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol’ and asked the students which country would not sign? Answer: The United States, the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases. Global climate change will have many effects on our world, including effects on whales.

The great era of modern whaling began and ended in the 20th century. Factory ships enabled exploitation of the largest whales, and capture of these whales in the Southern Ocean that circles Antarctica. Western nations pioneered this form of whaling and Japan followed. Importantly, while the west used whales for industrial products, Japan also depended on whales as a major source of protein. By mid-century it was clear that many species were over hunted. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) formed in 1946 to manage these whales as a sustainable fishery. In the 1960s the U.S. and many other western nations stopped whaling. Plant and fish oils replaced whale oil in industry, and with fewer whales to hunt, it was no longer economical. Nishiwaki-san presented this history and explained how whaling became a political ‘bargaining chip’ in the west. By comparison, Japan still used whales for meat as well as oil, and they continued to hunt whales according to the regulations of the IWC.

As an introduction to sustainable use, Nishiwaki-san described the relationship between American Indians and American bison (buffalo). American Indians depended on buffalo and they used all the parts of the buffalo, just like Japanese whalers use the entire whale. Then Europeans came to America, and buffalo were driven to near extinction. Nishiwaki-san did not stop here. He went on to describe the recent comeback of buffalo today, but noted they are confined to one park (Yellowstone National Park). He then asked the students: Why are buffalo limited to this park? Answer: Because any buffalo that stray from the park are killed by government regulation, to protect the many ranches that surround the park. This last detail pointed out the fact that humans have changed the environment and humans manage the population of buffalo. Also, this change has allowed for many of the burgers enjoyed in America and Japan.

The second half of his talk described in more detail the IWC and the research he conducts in the Southern Ocean. As already noted, the IWC was created to manage whaling as a sustainable industry; member nations have a duty to research the health of whale populations. However, after western countries stopped whaling in the 1960s, they no longer supported the necessary research to assess these populations. Rather, they have become anti-whaling nations. They vote to restrict commercial whaling regardless of the status of the population.

By comparison, Japan has continued to research whales in the Southern Ocean using the standardized methods developed by American and other scientists (see photo 7). Many of the whale populations that had been overexploited are now coming back. He noted in particular the first fin whale he saw at sea. These whales were highly endangered, and he never expected to see one. Now, 10 percent of this population consists of young whales, born after the commercial whaling moratorium began in 1986. He sees many populations recovering, but also emphasized the need to keep up a strong research program, which includes the lethal capture of whales.

Photo 7: Nishiwaki-san describes the transect method, a standard method used to assess the density of whale populations.

At the end of his talk, Nishiwaki-san again emphasized sustainability. He noted, for exampl,e criticism of the Bluefin tuna fishery, driven in large part by Japanese consumers. He agreed with the critics that bluefin tuna are over-fished. At the same time, he compared the 1,000 dolphins killed each year in the town of Taiji (“The Cove”), to the 60,000 dolphins killed as bi-catch each year for “Chicken of the Sea” (canned tuna). Although Americans mostly buy dolphin-safe tuna these days, boats registered to other nations still capture many dolphins in their purse nets along with the tuna. Many of these dolphins drown and are thrown overboard (called bi-catch) andare sold to American companies that sell the tuna overseas.

He asked, “Is killing all these dolphins to catch tuna a problem? Why does Sea Shepherd and other environmental groups come to Taiji? And not to western countries?” He answered, “They come to Taiji to raise money. Environmental groups operate as a business.”

Shoji-san ended the day’s ‘Whale School’ with a strong statement of support for sustainable fishing and whaling. Particularly as he ages, his respect for all life deepens. Also, he wants to share this tradition with the children of Wada. Similarly, Nishiwaki-san supports sustainable whaling and concludes some southern populations of whales are viable for hunting. Decades of data support his conclusion.

Comments, Opening Day and Feast
I recorded nearly four hours worth of our ‘Whale School’ presentations, and Nishiwaki-san graciously gave me copies of his two PowerPoint presentations. Reiko has spent several days translating so that I can make this report. Here, I have tried to condense these presentations, while accurately representing the speakers’ views. While I knew much of the biology and history of whales and whaling prior to my visit, it was my first opportunity to hear whaling presented by non-western experts.

As a biologist, Nishiwaki-san detailed the history, politics and science of the southern whales. His emphasis on sustainability was clear, and his data speak for themselves. As a whaler, Shoji-san is a businessman. He is also a humanitarian and poet, with strong feelings for the natural world. I have included a link to his blog, with haiku he wrote after visiting the tsunami damage in Ayukawahama.

I did not go to Wada to speak, but rather to listen and learn. The invitation to speak came later, so I spoke. At the end of my talk, I was also asked about my personal views. To me, the most important aspect of whaling (and other fisheries) is sustainability: so future generations can also appreciate these animals. I also admitted to being affected by the “Flipper Effect.” Certain species of dolphins, particularly orcas, seem too “special” to hunt. Rather, orcas have hunted alongside people in both Puget Sound, Washington (for salmon) and on the coast of Eden, Australia (for whales). I do not eat dogs; and I choose not to eat orcas.

Shoji-san and the people of Wada warmly received me. Some were surprised that Americans were interested in sustainability, and even more surprised that someone with a partial anti-whaling view (at least for orcas) could support sustainable whaling by other people. We departed that afternoon with an invitation to return the next week for opening day.

Monday, June 20 was the first day of whaling. Shoji-san’s crew caught one Baird’s beaked whale (see photos 8 & 9). Later that afternoon he announced the whale would be flensed (cleaned) the next morning in front of the elementary school kids, followed by a public feast. Unfortunately, we were unable to return at that time, but the day was a success. Shoji-san reported the whale was somewhat smelly by Tuesday morning, and the flensing was a bit messy, but the kids enjoyed the event and especially the whale feast.

Photo 8: Shoji-san’s whaleboat, in dock, being prepared for the opening of whale season. Note the exploding harpoon gun in the bow.

Photo 9: Aft view of Shoji-san’s whaleboat.

‘K Weblog’ has extensive pictures of a beaked whale flensed last year (text in Japanese): http://blog.livedoor.jp/kei_oh19/tag/%E5%A4%96%E6%88%BF%E6%8D%95%E9%AF%A8%E6%A0%AA%E5%BC%8F%E4%BC%9A%E7%A4%BE

Shoji-san’s blog site with his haiku (in Japanese; haiku posted in March after the tsunami) http://gaibouhogei.blog107.fc2.com/

This New York Times article describes the destruction of Ayukawahama and the effects on whaling: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/25/world/asia/25whale.html?_r=1

AFP report on radioactivity found in minke whales caught off Hokkaido in April: http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110615/wl_asia_afp/japandisasternuclearaccidentwhaling_20110615055943

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6 thoughts on “Whaling Season & Whale School

  1. I strongly disagree with this article. We learnt from the history that sustainable whaling is not feasible in the reality of modern industry.

    In 1905, when whaling business was just starting to grow, the population of blue whale was estimated to be over a million. In the timeframe of 50 years, when the whaling industry was blooming, the whales were hunted almost to the last one, leaving the blue whale on the verge of extinction. I live in the North, where the whales were once very common. Nowadays, if you’ve ever seen a whale – you are a lucky man.

    Once you run this machine, there is no way out. “Sustainable” is a beautiful word when it’s written down on paper, but in reality there is no way it can be monitored and executed. True story.

  2. Pingback: Taiji Town, Whale Town | Glendale Community College Blog

  3. Thanks for this!
    It’s nice to read something real about the topic and what’s really going on in Japan. It’s amazing that they give class lessons on their profession and the “hear like a whale” lab. You can tell it’s a tight-nit community.
    My prayers are with them and nearby Ishinomaki.

  4. I was taught the western viewpoint that all the products that were made with whale could be made with other raw material, vague I know, but at least true here in us.

  5. Robert…another interesting and informative article! Every culture has different eating habits…for example,here in French Polynesia we do eat dog but not regularly. Looks like you all are having a wonderful time. Hope to see you in the spring if Air Tahiti Nui is still in business. Ruta

  6. Wow, what an incredible presentation. Papa, thank you for sharing this! I especially liked the ways in which sustainability were addressed and the exposure of the hypocrisy in U.S. environmental policies.

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