Japan’s Current Hunt for Pilot Whales a Poor Choice

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Short finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) Creative Commons

Following within days of the announcement that Japan had abandoned the spring slaughter of ‘small whales’ by Taiiji fishermen, reports began to filter in that between 60 and 100 of these pilot whales had been slaughtered there. Normally the hunting season extends through April, but because of the March earthquake the government chose to extend the season, in a move that may have been calculated to throw protesters off base.  Given that world opinion is increasingly against this slaughter, it really is unfortunate that Japan has opted to behave in a seemly underhanded way.
What the whalers care about is their way of life and their pocketbooks, and exhibit the all too common attitude that those are rights, not privileges  – but in our changing world everyone is having to make changes.  In this case, given the amount of problems facing that nation, it is understandable that dealing with the ‘fishing’ industry is not high on the government’s agenda, nor, when a people have lost so much is it easy to ask them to abandon what little remains of their lifestyle.   On the other hand, those changes are inevitable, and maybe while the whole world is offering to help them recover from the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear contamination that so recently devastated them, Japan could choose to see this as an opportunity to make significant change.

But given the seasonal clock that governs marine life, there may not have been enough time to really reconsider this year’s hunt.  Soon the whales will move into the area of highest radioactive contamination as they follow their favorite prey item, squid, on it’s annual northward migration.

The pilot whales follow the warmer water. In the spring (green line) they are south of the Fukushima reactor (red dot), but as the seasons progress they move farther north (orange line). (Whaling Commission)

These pilot whales are seldom located north of the 16 degree C temperature (60.0 F) line, which gradually moves up the coast as the colder northern waters retreat during the summer months.  They are most often found in deep water off of shelf edges, and because Japan is perched so precariously on four tectonic plates at the edge of the continental shelf, the pilot whales come fairly close to land near Taiiji:
South/central Japan is perched at the deep ocean shelf edge, habitat favored by short finned pilot whales.

In this case it is very likely that both the pilot whales and the squid will pick up an unhealthy load of radioactive material on their northward journey – a fact that is probably not lost on the fishermen. As the animals return south they will again face exposure, and although the squid are short lived the whales are not (often living into their 40s), and will continue to acquire more contamination with each passing year.
Next year has got to be better for Japan, and hopefully they will reconsider the wisdom of holding onto a way of life that is sure to become increasingly unhealthy.

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