Japan Has Resumed Whaling – Is This Wise, Considering the Possible Radioactive Contamination?

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According to The Japan Times, three whaling ships departed port on Tuesday on a quest to obtain minke whales for “scientific research”:

Usually, the spring hunt is conducted off Ayukawa port in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, but it has been switched to Kushiro, the base for autumn whaling, as Ayukawa port was damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.  The crew, including around 30 members from Ayukawa, will catch up to 60 minke whales by early June to study their ecology.

Whether these whales are truly studied for science or not, they are also destined for the dinner plate in many Japanese homes, and the question remains what this may mean in terms of possible radioactive contamination resulting from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  Because the marine contamination, while severe, has had little time to move up the food chain, and because the whalers are most likely well north of the contaminated area, the chances are good that those whales are not seriously contaminated at this point.  But in a way, the whalers are playing a game of Russian roulette unless they are very careful about which animals they target.

Minkes are small baleen whales(Photo from Hope4Dolphins)

The small (up to 35 feet in length  and weighing about 20000 lbs) Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) feeds by side-lunging into schools of prey as well as by gulping large amounts of water.  Their diet is varied, from crustaceans (e.g., krill), plankton (e.g., copepods), to small schooling fish (e.g., anchovies, dogfish, capelin, coal fish, cod, eels, herring, mackerel, salmon, sand lance, saury, and wolfish).  Some of these species are very likely to absorb radioactive particles immediately, others accumulate over time.

Minke whales of this stock :
In the North Pacific, their diet varies according to year, season,geographical area and prey availability. Moreover, prey species of minke whales also differs depending on the season. Japanese anchovy (Engraulis japonicus) is an important prey species during early summer (May to June).
On the other hand, in the coastal Japanese waters of the Okhotsk Sea, krill (Euphausia pacifica) are thought to be the dominant prey species. Minke whales consume various prey of pelagic zooplankton and pelagic schooling fishes and are adaptive to oceanic conditions and prey abundance in the North Pacific (Tamura 1998).

Populations of Minke whales near Japan (Courtesy Japan Foreign Ministry)

The whalers departed from Hokkaido, the large island at the top where Abashiri is located.  They may select Minkes from this region which, while not directly severely affected may have whales that migrated up along the southern coast and through the contaminated area.
This graphic shows where Minke whales may be feeding this time of year.

Notice that in April/May, young whales come into the Fukashima area (dashed lines).  The map below shows the location of the nuclear plant.

Likely marine conditions in Japan in April - notice that the warmer water coming up from the south collides with the colder northern water in the general vicinity of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. When warm water mixes with nutrient-rich colder water, ideal conditions for boosting the biological productivity are created. These 'fronts' tend to aggregate the small prey, and Minke whales would find rich feeding grounds of both krill and small fish.

How bad is the contamination?  According to the Wall Street Journal, Asia :

The water at the center of current efforts is in the basement of the No. 2 reactor building and totals some 25,000 tons, according to Tepco. The facility was first flooded by the March 11 tsunami. Operators then tried to cool the reactor by pumping in 168 tons of cold water a day.
The water is believed to have leaked into the nearby ocean, causing highly elevated levels outside the plant and resulting in radioactive readings detected in nearby fish. The water has been measured as having 13 million becquerels of iodine-131 per cubic centimeter, 300 million times the legal limit, and three million becquerels of cesium-137, which is 30 million times the limit.

(“The scientific research in the northwestern Pacific (JARPN: the Japanese research program under the special permit in the North Western Pacific) was initiated in 1994 for the purpose of collecting data on stock structures and feeding ecology of the minke whales in the area. Up to 100 whales can be taken annually. Each participating vessel is given a research license and the right to hunt a certain number of whales. The research is supervised by scientists from both the Government of Japan and the Scientific Committee of the IWC, and by an officially appointed inspector. The meat, blubber and other edible parts landed were certified by the health authorities before human consumptionLink).
I hope that the Japanese health inspectors include Geiger counters in their tool bags.
By the way, the inland waters around the Salish Sea (which extends from Puget Sound, Wa to British Columbia) are home to several well-known and frequently seen Minke whales.  Like the orcas, you may be able to come see them from the shores of the San Juan Islands.

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