The effect of Japan’s tsunami on whaling

In an ironic twist of fate, Japan’s recent tsunami may have accomplished something conservationists have been fervently attempting for years: Driving a final nail into its pro-active whaling communities.

The first outsiders only recently reached the small town of Ayukawahama, which was crushed by thirty-foot waves. So was the headquarters of the biggest business in town, Ayukawa Whaling, one of the country’s most prodigious hunters of big whales.

The waves rushed six hundred feet inland, wiping out 80 percent of the town’s 700 homes. Four hundred of its 1,400 residents are missing, assumed dead. The peninsula town is described as having been reduced to “an expanse of splintered wood and twisted cars.”

In these days two weeks after the natural disaster the impact on the whaling town carries a kind of finality. Ayukawa lives off whaling. It is one of just four communities in Japan home to small fleets that twice a year hunt whales in waters close to Japan, differentiating them from the fleet that heads to the Southern Ocean each November.

“There is no Ayukawa without whaling,” said a 27-year-old whaler.The four boats of Ayukawa Whaling were sucked out to sea by the retreating tsunami waves, thrown back onto shore a mile down the coastline. The company’s 28 employees ran for the hills. All survived but have now been laid off.

The company’s chairman told the New York Times that while he hoped to rebuild the factory, refloat the company’s boats and get back to hunting whales, he admitted it wouldn’t be any time soon. It will take months and lots of money to pull his boats back onto the sea; his processing plant for whale meat was reduced to splinters.

Nearby the daughter of a 54-year-old woman scavenging for food found a tin of whale meat among the debris. “I wish we could eat whale meat every day,” said the 17-year-old. “But the whalers are so old, I think they’ll just quit or retire after what has happened.

“I think whaling is dead here.”

During the height of the Southern Ocean campaign which usually runs from November to March, many news stories can make it seem like whale hunting – and whale meat eating — is a passion for all Japanese. The reality is that Japan does not thrive on whale meat and there are increasingly fewer companies engaged in whale hunting.

Despite the success of the Sea Shepherd’s this past season – its successful harassment forcing the Japanese to end its season early and reducing its take by some 75 percent, to less than 200 whales – the tsunami waves may ultimately get credit for stopping the hunt.

If you follow the exploits of Sea Shepherd and its outspoken leader, Captain Paul Watson, you’d think they might be celebrating aboard its mother ship, the “Steve Irwin.” But Watson’s public reaction has been appropriately muted:

“Nature does not play favorites and just as the earthquake struck New Zealand recently, the fires ravaged Australia two years ago, and the tsunami struck India and Thailand not so very long ago, the message is clear — we all share the dangers of living on the water planet called earth,” he wrote.

“In the face of such peril from the forces of nature, we are all equal.

I have heard many people say that Japan’s tragedy is karma. People who say such things do not understand the concept of karma. This earthquake struck Japan purely on the basis of geography and geology.”

In another twist, the Japanese factory processing ship “Nisshin Maru,” which the Shepherd’s had hounded back to port a month early, is being used by the Japanese government to deliver aid supplies (charcoal, 100,000 noodle cups, kerosene, cranes) to the hard-hit north.

“Sea Shepherd believes that the ‘Nisshin Maru’ should be permanently converted into a humanitarian aid vessel,” suggested its website.

But the Japanese have rebuilt from the dust before and started over, with great success. One Ayukawa whaler was quoted two days after the tsunami: “As long as there are people who will carry on whaling in the absence of vessels or facilities, whaling could be revived … eventually.”