Controversy arose last month after photos circulated of a harpooned whale allegedly aboard a Japanese ship in Australia’s Antarctic territorial waters.
The incident sparked tension between Australia and Japan, in addition to global attention since there has been a worldwide ban on commercial whaling since 1985.
Japan has continued whaling since the ban because they claim that it is for scientific, not commercial purposes.
However, the actual motives of their whaling program have been widely debated, and in 2014 the United Nations International Court of Justice determined that Japan’s whaling activities were not scientific and must end.
This resolution only achieved a halt in whaling for one season before Japan’s program resumed in 2015.
Over the years, Japan has defended their whaling activities with a variety of claims, one such argument has been that whales reduce the supply of fish available to humans. However, science does not seem to support this assertion.
A study published in The Fish and Fisheries Journal on whales in the Caribbean found that fewer whales do not significantly increase the biomass of commercially harvested fish and in some cases, their presence improved fisheries.
This is due in large part because whales tend to prey on fish species other than the those targeted by commercial fisheries.
Furthermore, a 2014 report published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment suggests that restoring whale populations to their pre-whaling levels could increase ocean productivity and ecosystem health.
The report frames whales as critical species because they redistribute nutrients in the ocean by feeding and leaving waste at different depths, and because their carcasses provide habitat and nutrients for organisms.
Vanessa Komada, sophomore wildlife ecology major, finds the issue frustrating. She thinks that Japan is acting irresponsibly because the whales they are harvesting are not just important to one area or country but the ocean as a whole since many whales migrate great distances.
Komada pointed out the danger of upsetting the ecosystem equilibrium through unsustainable harvest.
Komada said, “Although Japan may temporarily be getting financial benefits from whaling, if you destroy this ecosystem it will cause detrimental environmental effects which are way more costly.”
If whales truly are such a critical species, the issue of whaling becomes relevant not just to Japan and Australia but worldwide, since the oceans are a shared resource which is crucial to the health of our planet.