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Tragic Whale Tales Tug at Heartstrings, but Irk Japanese Economy

When it comes to whaling in international waters, Japan continues to be the elephant in the room – and it’s starting to have a ripple effect on the international investment market.

According to a ruling by the United Nations’ International Court of Justice on March 31, Japan can no longer exploit a loophole that allows the country to carry out a yearly whale hunt for “scientific research,” despite a worldwide moratorium on whale hunting.

But then again, Japan has been around quite a few years longer than the UN. The country has traditionally carried out annual whale hunting as a cultural means of sustenance since the 9th century – a practice that’s been increasingly scrutinized by the international community.

The main offender is Japan’s claimed research program, JARPA II, which calls for the harvesting of 850 Antarctic minke whales over the course of six years in order to study “how the Antarctic marine system is still changing,” according to The Institute of Cetacean Research.

But a portion of the research involves lethal research methods, in which researched whale meat is sold to offset research costs, while simultaneously drawing a leery eye from dissenters.

“Japan’s research program is carried out to obtain scientific data for the sustainable use of whale resources and not for the pursuit of profit by marketing whale meat,” states the ICR on JARPA II’s Frequently Asked Questions index.

Whether for scientific discovery or shrouded whale sales, it looks like the fish and chips have finally fallen – and not in Japan’s favor. According to a story by CNN, Australia was the catalyst for the hearing, and after the court ruled in its favor, Japan became the chum bucket.

But even before the ruling, Japan was walking an admittedly fine line.

Blame it on a constant onslaught of 21st century media, public sentiment, and a handful of riveting documentaries that have cast a light on the real-life conditions of captive and wild whales, but Japan is now begrudgingly abiding by the ruling.

The Effects of Deep-Diving Documentaries

One of the best examples of public sentiment at its most refined was the debut of Blackfish, a documentary about the unnatural lives lived by whales in captivity by Time Warner Cable. Though the story focused on a captive Seaworld whale by the name of Tilikum – a killer whale that claimed the lives of three people – audiences sympathized with his plight, much to the chagrin of Seaworld Entertainment Inc. (NYSE: SEAS). Seaworld’s newly offered stock prices dropped back down to near-IPO prices as a result. But it didn’t have as negative of an effect as one would imagine. In fact, Seaworld’s parks hit a record high for attendance in January.

Well before that, Japan’s tradition of dolphin hunting had also been scrutinized with the release of The Cove in 2009 – a documentary on the annual hunting of dolphins off of the coastal fishing town of Taiji. A film trailer states that Taiji is where “more than 2000 dolphins are brutally slaughtered. The most attractive ones are chosen by sea parks to live in captivity, and the rest will land on Japanese plates.”

While Japan has agreed to abide by the whale ruling, Taiji’s annual hunt continues as it has for decades, albeit with increased public backlash toward Japan’s seafood mega-suppliers (whether they process dolphin or not), including Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. (TYO: 1332) and Maruha Nichiro Corporation (TYO: 1333).

Political and Economic Fallout

While Japan’s whale hunting activities have raised a few eyebrows, the effect of the hunting ban is unlikely to cause any severe financial fallout, thanks to Japan’s appetite for mainstream seafood (the country consumes more than 582 million tons of it per year). The Japanese public itself has long been weaned off of whale meat (shipments were down to 2,400 tons, compared to 233,000 tons in 1963).

According to a study conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Japan’s whaling industry was barely limping along before the ruling.

“Whaling is unprofitable, and survives only with substantial subsidies, something cultural and nationalist arguments for whaling obscure,” said Patrick Ramage, the director of the animal welfare fund’s whale program, in a New York Times article.

The moratorium will have little effect on Australia’s economy and international commerce, as well.

Perhaps the biggest effect of the ruling is in the realm of bilateral politics, where fiery tongues still spew incendiary accusations from either country. During the rulings, Japan’s counsel, Payam Akhavan, told the court that Australia’s accusations against Japan are an “affront to the dignity of a nation” and should not be taken lightly.

Even so, Australia’s Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, thinks Japan will swallow the crow and abide by the ruling, and the two countries still maintain a cordial relationship. On April 7, the two countries even signed a free trade deal, showing that cooperation isn’t always out of the question.

Expect Australia/Japan relations to stay on-par or improve, and don’t hesitate to cast a line into Japan’s fishing stock, where the waters are no longer tainted.

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