Trapped by Ice: Nature's Payback to Whale Hunters in Japan?

February 7, 2024 - Reading time: 5 minutes

A group of at least 10 killer whales has been trapped by sea ice off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, according to a statement from NHK, Japan's public broadcaster. The trapped orcas were initially spotted by a local fisherman, prompting concern from officials in the coastal town of Rausu, who have expressed their inability to conduct a rescue operation.

Authorities in Rausu have stated that their only option is to wait for the ice to naturally break apart, allowing the whales a chance to escape. The situation was brought to the attention of the Rausu Coast Guard Station by a local fisherman who observed one of the whales struggling near the shoreline, caught in drifting ice.

Wildlife Pro LLC, a local wildlife organization, captured drone footage showing the whales in a narrow opening among the ice floes. The organization, which was conducting marine research at the time, shared the footage on Facebook with a statement describing the scene. According to an employee of Wildlife Pro LLC who recorded the video, approximately 13 killer whales were seen, including three or four calves, all appearing to struggle for breath through a hole in the ice.

The area's lack of wind has contributed to the ice remaining in place, trapping the orcas. Hokkaido's coast is known for its sea ice every winter, representing the lowest latitude sea ice in the world. However, the extent of this ice has been decreasing in recent years, a trend attributed to the accelerating pace of global warming.

This incident is not the first of its kind; in 2005, a similar situation resulted in the death of a group of killer whales trapped in drift ice off the coast of Rausu, as reported by NHK through statements from town officials.

The practice of whale hunting in Japan

The practice of whale hunting in Japan has a long history, deeply rooted in Japanese culture, providing food and using whale products for various purposes. Whaling in Japan dates back hundreds of years, with coastal communities engaging in small-scale whaling and utilizing almost every part of the whale for food, tools, and other materials.

In the 20th century, Japan became involved in industrial whaling, significantly increasing the scale of its whaling operations. This was part of a global trend that saw many countries engage in large-scale whaling, leading to the decline of several whale populations around the world. In response to the growing conservation concerns, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 to regulate whale hunting and ensure the sustainability of whale populations.

In 1986, the IWC implemented a moratorium on commercial whaling to allow whale populations to recover from the brink of extinction caused by overhunting. However, Japan continued to hunt whales under the guise of scientific research, a practice that has been widely criticized by the international community and environmental organizations. The country argued that its whaling was conducted for scientific purposes to study whale populations, behavior, and biology, although the meat from these hunts was sold in markets and restaurants, leading many to question the true nature of the scientific research.

Despite international criticism and declining domestic demand for whale meat, Japan has been resistant to fully abandoning whaling. The country has repeatedly sought to resume commercial whaling, arguing that whaling is a part of its cultural heritage and that certain whale populations have recovered enough to allow sustainable hunting.

In December 2018, Japan announced its withdrawal from the IWC to resume commercial whaling within its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, effectively ending its participation in the so-called scientific whaling program. This decision was met with both domestic support and international condemnation. Japan officially resumed commercial whaling in July 2019, focusing its efforts on whale species that are not considered endangered.

The debate over whaling in Japan touches on complex issues of cultural tradition, international law, conservation, and sustainable use of marine resources. While Japan asserts its right to continue whaling as part of its cultural heritage, many countries and environmental organizations continue to call for an end to whaling altogether, citing ethical concerns and the importance of preserving marine biodiversity.

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.