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What's happening: Japanese ships resumed hunting whales in waters off the nation's coast Monday, ending a 31-year ban on commercial whaling. The country's whalers expect to kill hundreds of whales before the end of the year. Japan is resuming the practice after leaving the International Whaling Commission, an organization aimed at conserving global whale populations.
In recent years, Japanese ships had been hunting whales in protected waters near Antarctica. Japan officially considered those kills part of scientific research, although the meat from the animals was later sold for food. These hunts are expected to stop now that whaling in Japanese waters has restarted.
Why there's debate: Critics of whaling say it's an outdated, cruel practice that is no longer acceptable amid the increasing threat sea creatures face from pollution, climate change and overfishing. They also say there is little market for the meat in modern Japan, and the government is wasting millions in subsidies to prop up a dying industry.
Defenders say whaling is an important part of Japan's culture with a long history that people from other nations don't fully understand. There are also some conservationists who believe the move could actually be good for whales. They believe local hunts will be more controlled and less likely to lead to overfishing than the hunts in the Antarctic.
What's next: Two minke whales were caught on the first day of hunting. The meat sold at "celebration prices" that were several times the typical rate. Whether that enthusiasm will last remains to be seen. Some experts believe the move to open hunts in Japanese waters may be a step toward the end of whaling in the country, since the industry may prove not to be economically viable.
The move may end up being positive for whale populations
"This could be good news for minkes. If Japan stays within reported catch limits, the transition away from Antarctic whaling and into more local hunts could alleviate pressure on the Antarctic minke populations, while also maintaining local minke population sizes that are sustainable." — Liz Allen, Forbes
Japan is propping up a dying industry
"Whaling is a dying industry — it is an outdated and cruel industry selling a product to a market that has all but disappeared. Japan’s whaling is out of step with the international community, and legal opinion shows it’s also out of step with international law." — Darren Kindleysides, Australian Marine Conservation Society CEO, to New York Daily News
There is very little demand for whale meat
"Demand for whale has been stagnant for more than a decade at roughly 5,000 tonnes annually. That breaks down to roughly 40 grams per person a year, or half the mass of a medium-sized apple. Nobody in the industry expects demand or profits to grow rapidly when commercial whaling resumes." — Elaine Lies, Reuters
Economic forces are working against the whaling industry
"Now whalers, who have long depended on government subsidies for their survival, face the much tougher challenge of defying basic economic reality: The market for their product is declining while labor costs across the nation are on the rise." — Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno, New York Times
Whaling is an important part of Japanese culture
"Whaling is not a major Japanese economic interest. … But for Japanese nationalists and cultural traditionalists, the IWC has become a symbol of Western cultural imperialism, and standing against it is a way to assert national pride." — Walter Russel Mead, Wall Street Journal
The move is a step toward the end of the whaling industry
“What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling. It is a win-win solution that results in a better situation for whales, a better situation for Japan, a better situation for international marine conservation efforts.” — Patrick Ramage, International Fund for Animal Welfare director, to Washington Post
Whaling is cruel and should be banned
"Killing whales is a cruel business. Due to their size, there is no humane way to kill a whale and they can take a significant amount of time to die." — Conservationist Lewis Pugh
Whaling is an important part of Japanese history
"The government has vigorously defended whaling, citing its cultural and historical importance. Some regions have a long tradition of whaling, and the taste of its meat was etched into the public’s psyche following the war when it was the nation’s main source of protein." — Sakura Murakami, Japan Times