A Whale of a Controversy

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Meeting dinner: Children touch a recent catch on July 30 at Wada Port near Tokyo, one of five ports in Japan from which whale hunting is allowed. The world slaughters roughly 1,200 of the animals every year, many of them in western Pacific and Antarctic waters. A worldwide ban on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986 to restore declining whale stocks, but whaling for scientific and cultural reasons is still legal.

Junko Kimura/Getty Images


After being cleaned, this 10-meter Baird's beaked whale receives a long incision to prepare for slaughtering. The number of whales killed by Japan has steadily risen in recent years, prompting U.S. officials to criticize Tokyo for exploiting the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium's scientific loophole. Other countries have withdrawn from the IWC and defied the organization outright. Norway and Iceland, for example, have deliberately ignored the ban.


Whalers peel back a layer of fat, or blubber, before harvesting the meat underneath on July 30 in Wada Port. Whaling proponents say continued biological research will encourage Japan to develop more-sustainable aquaculture policies. In particular, scientists measure not only which species of whales populate regional waters, but also the age, weight, and living patterns of those animals.


A young girl looks on as workers tidy up the carcass of a whale. Whaling has grown increasingly unpopular in regions where whale watching is common. A recent report estimates that whale tourism is a $2 billion-a-year industry and could ultimately be more profitable than hunting.


Observers -- one of whom appears disgusted -- examine the decapitated head of a harvested whale. Photographs like this one have put Japan on the defensive, but it might be gaining the upper hand once more. The Australian government was a strong proponent of taking Japan to court for its actions, sending observation ships to follow whalers into Antarctic waters. But Canberra "secretly" backed down in May by suspending government funding for its ships, and June's annual meeting of the IWC failed to set tougher caps on whale kills.


Currently in its second season on the cable channel Animal Planet, Whale Wars tells the story of the ship Steve Irwin (above on Dec. 5, 2007, in Melbourne, Australia), showing how some individuals have taken matters into their own hands. The ship's crew routinely chases down and harasses whaling vessels, adding to the whalers' costs and, as the captain puts it, "[saving] the lives of a good many whales."


A demonstrator, covered in fake blood, lies on a Japanese flag as part of a 2008 antiwhaling protest outside Japan's consulate in Melbourne. The first such movement began in 1977 with Save the Whales, which seeks to provide education about "marine mammals, their environment and their preservation."


Despite outspoken international protest, attitudes in Japan are still permissive regarding whale hunting. Not all whale species are protected under the 1986 commercial whaling ban; here, a bottlenose whale is prepared for delivery as Japanese men cut meat into manageable blocks. 


Raw whale meat is often made into sashimi, as seen above at a restaurant near Wada Port on July 29, but demand for the product has been falling amid global recession woes. One store has slashed its prices by more than half, offering 3.5-oz. cuts of meat for as little as $2.60 -- equivalent to prices 30 years ago.


 A woman tastes whale sashimi at the Taruichi restaurant in Tokyo. Antiwhaling activists claim whales and dolphins are "swimming toxic dumpsites" full of harmful chemicals and contaminants and unsuitable for eating. Still, that hasn't stopped everyone from digging into this controversial delicacy.

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