With their harpoon cannons bolted to the deck of an 700-ton vessels, fishermen in Japan are heading back out to sea this week in search of the ocean's giants.
Their target: the 20,000-pound minke whale. Though minke whales are gargantuan in size, they're no match for the typical "whale catcher" ship. It would take about 70 minke whales to equal the weight of one vessel. The fleet plans on catching 51 whales.
The ships will launch from a port in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture, the Japan Times reported this week. The fleet is headed for the northwest Pacific, an area in which the country has conducted what it calls "scientific" whaling for decades.
But whaling, according to an international moratorium imposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, is banned around the world by. And in 2014, the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ) told Japan to halt its whaling program in the Antarctic, ruling that it was not, as Japan claimed, scientific.
How, then, does Japan get away with shooting explosive grenade harpoons into whales and dragging them up the ramp of ships?
"The only thing that will effectively stop Japanese whaling is if public opinion in Japan turns strongly against it."
For one thing, the ICJ ruling from last year only applies to whaling in the Antarctic; Japan's northern Pacific whaling is a totally separate campaign. For another, there's a tricky clause in that 1986 ban on whaling that's provided an enormous loophole for Japan. Called the "special permit whaling," the article allows countries to grant permits to "kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research." Japan seized on this technicality as the foundation for its whaling campaign. Ironically, the research is meant to determine whether whaling could be conducted in an economically feasible way.
And even in the Antarctic, where whaling was unequivocally determined to be unscientific, Japan can still whale. The country unveiled a new whaling plan with a new name earlier this year, saying that it will return to the Antarctic.
According to Dr. Phil Clapham, a whale expert with NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Japan has flouted international whaling restrictions for use for one simple reason: because it can.
"There's really no pressure to stop from other countries now," Clapham told Motherboard. "Anti-whaling NGOs have poured lots of money into anti-whaling campaigns, but so far no one has made them really pay a price. Until someone figures out how to do that, they're going to keep whaling."
And why would they stop? The organization that conducts whaling research in Japan, The Institute of Cetacean Research, is a quasi-governmental body. According to Clapham, the group receives subsidies from the Japanese government — and it profits off the sale of the meat. When whaling is lucrative, there's no incentive to stop.
"It's a self-perpetuating entity," he said.
Clapham predicts that another country won't bring a suit to the ICJ again to dispute Japanese whaling (the first suit was brought by Australia and New Zealand). Whale meat, mainly consumed by older generations in Japan, is not in high demand, but the barrage of western criticism of a traditional practice has made many Japanese to chafe—and to dig in their heels against efforts to end whaling. What's more, some Japanese feel that if they cave to westerners' demands to stop whaling, other fisheries they see as traditional will be threatened, too.
When I asked Clapham, who's published several papers assessing whaling and its economics, what he thought it would take to end Japanese whaling, he said, "I have no idea."
"The only thing that will effectively stop Japanese whaling is if public opinion in Japan turns strongly against it," he added. "Right now, it's not working. When the smoke clears, Japan is still standing there and whaling."