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Unless the Japanese government engages in proactive measures to curtail hunts of whales and dolphins, valuable regional species will be eradicated, according to a new report from a London-based environmental NGO. Called “Toxic Catch,” the report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) details the current status and troubling trajectory of the country’s cetacean hunts.
A major concern addressed in EIA’s report is how obstinate Japan has become in the face of calls to reduce their catch limits on small cetaceans, like the Dall's porpoise and the False Killer Whale. Prescribed in 1993, the catch limits were presumably drafted in the spirit of conservation. However, since their instatement, they have generally not been altered to reflect dwindling population numbers. Minor changes were made in 2007 to some, but these were only in regions wherein hunting had already ceased and therefore had no practical effect.
The ability to create sustainable catch limits is also hindered by the apparent lack of recent data on population numbers. For six of the nine species that are predominantly targeted in hunts, EIA says that no population assessment has been published in over twenty years.
With the ceiling exceedingly high despite increasingly smaller populations, catch limits become impotent and hunters effectively have no restrictions on the numbers of animals they catch and kill. “Government catch limits have failed to adequately restrict hunts, and continue to permit hunts to operate at unsustainable levels,” EIA asserts.
While the situation certainly appears dire for the small cetaceans, humans too are at risk. Multiple reports over the last few years have suggested that demand for whale meat is dropping, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is abstaining. Those who still like a side of cetacean with their meal are likely consuming harmful toxicological substances, like mercury and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), in quantities widely considered to be unsafe.
“Ingestion of these toxins have been linked to a range of immunological, cardiovascular, and reproductive effects in humans,” EIA states.
Conflating matters on all fronts is Japan's lack of transparency. Regarding both the number of animals caught each year as well as the effect of consuming cetacean products on humans, the Japanese government has maintained a harmful degree of opacity, the report argues.
First, its data on coastal hunting is woefully incomplete. Aside from population estimates being out of date, EIA claims that “there is little to no attention to catch composition or struck and lost rates,” which measure those individuals that are hit by a harpoon but otherwise not landed. In the specific case of the Dall’s porpoise, inaccurate data has led to an underreporting of mortality rates by up to 11,000 individuals per year and "struck and lost individuals were previously estimated to result in a total mortality 10-14 percent higher than the number landed."
Second, Japan is failing to inform its consumers of the aforementioned dangers of eating cetacean meat. According to the report, cetacean meat products can have 85 times the amount of methyl mercury and 140 times the amount of polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs) considered safe for consumption.“ Japan’s guidance remains far more limited and recommends far higher levels of ‘safe’ consumption than that provided to populations that consume similarly polluted cetacean products in other parts of the world,” EIA notes.
EIA recommends that Japan gradually rid its waters of cetacean hunts over the next decade. In the eyes of the NGO, ten years is ample time to assist hunters in finding new vocations as well as ensuring through direct actions that local cetacean populations are on the rebound. But in the meantime, it insists that Japan should be keeping tabs on the status of all species targeted by hunts, should start collecting accurate data on those individuals stuck and lost as well as the composition of those caught, and reform their overall management strategy to bring it into compliance with international standards.
In the past seventy years, over a million whales, dolphins, and porpoises have been killed in Japan’s coastal hunts. According to EIA, Japan must answer to the animals, its people, and the environment before the former disappear.
(Full disclosure: I volunteered with EIA as an intern in 2011.)