Over Christmas of 2020, Japanese activists stationed in Taiji became aware that a young Minke whale approximately 5m, had become trapped in fixed nets just offshore from the town harbor. Like much of Japan’s coastline, the Taiji coast is a complicated maze of what are called fixed or set-nets. These are massive, complicated net labyrinths, meant to allow fish to wander in, but quickly become lost and trapped inside.
While Yellowtail (also known as buri, amberjack or Seriola quinqueradiata) are the fish species being targeted by this Taiji fishery at this time of year, fixed nets are indiscriminate and capture all kinds of sea life. In addition to the yellowtail and Minke whale, it was soon found that there were also several hammerhead sharks trapped inside these nets as well.
Concerned Japanese citizens began contacting the Taiji Fisheries Cooperative to try to find out what would happen to the whale. Unfortunately, answers were not forthcoming, as Taiji officials closed down for the end of the year holidays, leaving the Minke whale trapped and circling in the nets.
Days passed. The Japanese activists checked up on the whale using a drone each day. Meanwhile, news was spreading, around Japan and internationally as well about this trapped Minke whale.
Whales are not really supposed to be the target of such fix-net fisheries in Japan. However, it is not an uncommon occurrence for a passing whale to wander into such huge nets in search of a congregation of prey. And once inside the fixed net labyrinth, it’s very difficult for them to escape.
Officially, Japan’s policy is to try and avoid whale entanglement in fixed nets, however, it has been legal for such by-catch whales to be sold at market since 2001. For those fishermen targeting fish, a large creature like a whale becoming entangled or entrapped is a nuisance, as it may cause expensive damage to gear or even endanger the lives of fishermen dealing with the problem – so the government gave fishermen the option of killing and selling trapped whales as administrative compensation.
However, this also has the potential to create incentive, because fresh whale meat sells at a higher price than beef, pork or chicken in Japan. The market is small and limited, but it is often prepared to pay well. The only legal requirement is that a DNA sample of the whale must be sent to the Fisheries Agency for their records.
In South Korea, where outright whale hunting has been outlawed, by-caught whales may similarly be sold legally for good money. This has created an entire by-catch whaling industry, sometimes called “whaling, accidentally-on-purpose”. It appears something similar is at work in Japan and that by-catching is being used as a source for Minke whale meat.
In 2019, 114 whales were listed as by-catch in Japan. 104 of these were Minke whales. 110 of the whales were killed and sold as meat. Only 3 were released (and 1 was buried; cf. www.jfa.maff.go.jp).
The numbers of such by-caught whales has been high enough to cause some concern amongst Japanese coastal whalers, as becoming real competition in the limited whale meat market. Some proponents seem to feel switching over to by-catching whales would be advantageous, with far less over-head costs and controversy than those involved in maintaining a whaling fleet.
Apparently for the 2020 season, the acceptable number of by-caught Minke whales was capped at 39. For the 2021 season, by-catch has been capped at 37. Time will tell whether or not these quotas are heeded or superseded.
Meanwhile, I.K.A.N., the longest running cetacean conservation organization in Japan has been advising the Fisheries Agency with recommendations to lower whale by-catch in Japanese waters. Suggestions put forward include re-designing or arranging fixed-nets, so that whales do not enter them or perhaps using acoustic devices to drive whales away from areas with nets or collision with dangerously high shipping traffic.
Meanwhile back in Taiji, the new year was underway as the holidays wrapped up – and still the trapped Minke whale circled round and round its watery prison. Local fisheries officials claimed that while they were not averse to the Minke whale being freed, avoiding any damage to their fishing gear was stated as being the paramount concern. Damage to such huge nets could cost tens of millions of yen. Added to this was the problem of unusually fast running currents, which were apparently making it difficult for the fishermen to either capture or release the whale.
And so the days passed, one week, two weeks and all the while, more and more Japanese citizens were learning about the plight of this Minke whale. Pressure began to mount as more and more people were calling, faxing and emailing both local and national Fisheries, demanding the Minke whale be released from the Taiji nets. International news and media coverage soon followed. A Japanese post card writing campaign was also launched, targeting the Prefecture Governor, asking that the whale be freed quickly.
But still, day after day, the whale remained trapped and no one seemed to know what it’s fate would be. On Sunday January 10th, after over 18 days of captivity, the Taiji Set-Net Fishery Association, stated that its intention was to free the whale, but that the fast-running tides continued to make this difficult.
However, early the next morning in the grey pre-dawn, Japanese activists filmed Taiji fishermen over at the fixed net containing the Minke whale. It is currently being alleged that the fishermen looped a rope around the whale’s tail and then over the course of 20 minutes, held it underwater and drowned it. The reason for choosing this method of agonizing death would have been to avoid any stain of blood in the water for drone cameras to document. Despite its atrocious international reputation for dolphin hunting—in Japan, Taiji sells itself as a tourist town and is eager not to have this reputation further tarnished.
Once dead, the Minke whale was hauled aboard and wrapped in a blue tarp to hide it from cameras. It was then transported to the Taiji butcher shed, a place that has seen tens of thousands of dolphins and whales carved up for meat.
Photo: Minke whale wrapped in blue tarp being brought to the Taiji butcher shed.
It should also be noted that just prior to the capture of the Taiji Minke whale, another such whale became trapped in nets just 14km up the coast. This Minke whale was quickly killed, landed, chopped up and sold for meat. Only a few days ago in Mie Prefecture, an endangered fin whale was similarly dealt with after finding itself lost inside fixed nets.
I.K.A.N. states that it is their hope that in the future, both fishermen and the administration will accept the responsibility to manage such situations in a better way.
The plight of this unfortunate Minke whale has touched many people in Japan, and around the world. While foreign protest against harming whales is nothing new, the Japanese Fisheries Agency was stunned to receive so many complaints from its own citizens, up and down the country. Awareness continues to be raised about the issue of by-catch and how it harms non-target species such as whales and sharks. Japanese citizens have come to care about the fate of Minke whales – the species most commonly found on dinner plates.
We are witnessing a “sea-change” in Japan as increasing numbers of people there become aware of these issues. Despite the sad ending to this Minke whale’s story, we may take hope that a new generation in Japan can see another, kinder way forward.