A new large whaler, the Kangei-Maru, began operations on Tuesday, May 21. The imposing factory ship, 100 meters long and weighing nearly 9,300 tonnes, left its home port of Shimonoseki (western Japan) on Tuesday for a several-month campaign off the coast of northeastern Japan, inaugurating a new era for an industry defended tooth and nail by the Japanese government.

The Kangei-Maru – which can package and store whale meat on board – is the successor to the Nisshin-Maru, retired last year, after more than thirty years of activity. This vessel’s fishing campaigns in the Southern Ocean have been regularly disrupted by environmental defenders, such as the NGO Sea Shepherd.

Commercial whale fishing was banned worldwide in 1986, with an international moratorium from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) coming into force to protect the species, some of which had become highly endangered.

But Japan continued whaling in a highly controversial manner, exploiting a clause in the moratorium allowing scientific missions. It left the IWC in 2019 to free itself from the moratorium, while now limiting its hunting zone to its own maritime space.

The country is one of the last three countries to hunt whales, along with Norway and Iceland.

The new factory ship, whose construction cost 7.5 billion yen (44 million euros), plans to contribute with a flotilla to the capture of around 200 of these mammals by the end of the year.

Increase your capacity for self-sufficiency in the event of a food shortage

These cetaceans have been hunted for centuries in Japan, and their meat was a valuable source of protein for the population in the years of misery following the Second World War.

But the country’s whale consumption has fallen to about 1 percent of its 1960s peak, or about 2,000 tons a year: other meats (beef, pork, chicken) have gradually become more accessible, as catches of whales, under the effect of international regulatory constraints, were becoming weaker.

“Japan today depends on imports for everything,” and “capturing whales is a good idea” to increase its capacity for self-sufficiency in the event of a food shortage, according to a whale meat store owner. But this old argument from Japan is hardly convincing for environmental NGOs, who point out that this risks further weakening certain species which are already suffering from plastic pollution and climate change.

The international outrage, however, cannot be compared to that aroused around ten years ago, when Japan, which could not hunt whales in its own waters due to the IWC moratorium, turned to Antarctic.