Japan to Import Norwegian Whale Meat

TOKYO, Japan, March 6, 2002 (ENS) - Japan is planning to import whale meat from Norway for the first time in about 11 years, Japanese Fisheries Agency officials said Wednesday. The imports of Norwegian minke whale meat could begin as early as May.

The officials say they intend to import up to a hundred tons of whale meat once they have obtained permission from Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.


Whale sashimi as prepared by Mutsuko Ohnishi, a proprietress of whale dish restaurant "Toku-ya" in Osaka, Japan. (Photo courtesy How to Cook Whale Meat)
The "Asahi Shimbun" newspaper said March 3 that two metric tons of Norwegian whale meat have already arrived at Japanese ports and are awaiting the ministry's approval before distribution. The newspaper speculates that the Japanese government is attempting to stimulate domestic consumption of whale meat by importing Norwegian whale meat which is half the price of that sold in Japan.

The conservation group International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) calls Japan's plans "defiance of an international ban on trade in whale products."

There has been no legal trade in minke whale products from Norway to Japan since 1986 when the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) prohibited international trade.

That same year a moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) came into effect. The Japanese-Norwegian whale meat trade is set to occur at the same time that the annual meeting of the IWC is held in Shimonoseki, Japan from April 25 to May 24.

"This is absolutely outrageous and must be stopped," stormed IFAW president Fred O'Regan. "Japan and Norway have obviously decided to go their own way, and the rest of the international community be damned. That Japan would undertake this prohibited trade on the eve of hosting an IWC meeting is incredible. It's pure Kabuki theater."

Both Norway and Japan showed their opposition to the international ban on trade in whale products by taking reservations on the CITES decision in 1986, and as such are not technically bound by the prohibition.

In January, Japanese consumer groups called on Norway's government not to allow the export of whale blubber to Japan, although their concerns were not environmental but about possible toxic contamination.

Yoko Tomiyama, chairwoman of the Consumers Union of Japan, told a news conference tests by a private laboratory showed Norwegian whale blubber on average contained concentrations of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that were 7.6 times the Japanese government's maximum permissible level.

whale meat

Whale meat (Photo by Judy Mills courtesy WWF)
"We cannot risk endangering the health of pregnant mothers and small children from eating Norwegian whale blubber without knowing about the contamination," Tomiyama said.

Whale blubber is considered a delicacy in Japan, but it is not eaten in Norway, which maintains a 400 ton stockpile of blubber in case the Japanese whale meat trade opens up.

Norway lifted its self-imposed whale export ban last year, and this year has set is self-imposed minke whale quota to 674 minke whales. This is an increase on last year's catch of 552 whales.

"The future for sustainable whaling looks bright. We are pleased that the negative trend of lower quotas has been turned," says Secretary of the High North Alliance, Rune FrÝvik. The highest quota since Norway resumed the minke whale hunt in 1993 was in 1999 when there was a quota of 753.

Last week Japanese officials announced that Japan will expand its "scientific research" whaling program in the North Pacific to include endangered sei whales as well as minke, Bryde's and sperm whales.

O'Regan said, "These audacious decisions are a slap in the face of the international community and decades of good faith efforts to protect and conserve the great whales for future generations."