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David @ Tokyo

Perspective from Japan on whaling and whale meat, a spot of gourmet news, and monthly updates of whale meat stockpile statistics



Another western gray whale entanglement death

Bad news today, another western gray whale has apparently died in a fixed fishing net off the coast of Iwate, north eastern Honshu.

Here's my translation of an January 20th article from Iwate Nippo on the subject (I think some of the information in this article is wrong, but I'll get to that later):
Gray whale caught in fixed net - Yoshihama bay, Ofunato

On the 19th, it was reported that a gray whale, a species with a high risk of extinction, became entangled in a fixed fishing net in Yoshihama bay, Sanriku, Ofunato city, and had been landed at Kamaishi city's Kamaishi Fish Market.

The whale was a female calf, of approximately 9.1 metres in length, and estimated to weigh around 7 tonnes. It had already died by the time it was discovered, and was dissected after samples were taken by the Institute of Cetacean Research (Tokyo city). The remains will be destroyed at a Kamaishi incineration plant sometime after the 20th.

According to the Fisheries Agency, fishermen discovered the gray whale entangled in a set net on the morning of the 18th, in the northern end of Yoshihama bay, in Sanriku, Ofunato city. It was pulled to Kamaishi Fish Market, where they inquired to the Fisheries Agency, at which point it was identified as a gray whale. The carcass was dissected on the morning of the 19th after researchers from the institute had completed their investigations.

According to the Fisheries Agency, there are around 100 gray whales in the coastal waters of Asia. A ministerial ordinance was revised in 2001 which, only in the case of entanglement in fixed fishing nets, made possible the sale of proceeds of whale carcasses upon submission of a written report and other procedures. However, a representative of the Fisheries Agency Far Seas Division said "The gray whale is an endangered species, and in consideration of international criticism, we have ruled that the proceeds not be sold".

There were also notifications in 2005 of a grey whale being found in Tokyo bay, and two more off the coast of Onagawa, Miyagi. These three whales also died.

An expert in whale ecology, Mr. Yamada of the No. 1 Animal laboratory at the National Science Museum, analysed the event. "It seems that the whale became entangled in the fixed fishing net while migrating to it's breeding grounds in Mexico. This species travels close to the coastline, so there is the chance of entanglement in fixed fishing nets."

According to the prefecture's fisheries promotion division, there are no prior occurrences of gray whales being entangled in Iwate prefecture. Each year, around 10 minke whales, for which it is permitted to market the proceeds only in the case of entanglement in fixed nets, are landed. In 2006 14 whales were marketed.

[Photo: The head of the gray whale landed at Kamaishi Fish Market, at 10:00 on Jan 19 (courtesy of the Fisheries Agency)]
An earlier article at Nikkan Sports notes that the Institute of Cetacean Research confirmed that the whale was a gray whale, with a representative quoted as saying "it is rare to find gray whales in the seas off Touhoku" (for those unfamiliar with Japanese geography, Touhoku is the north eastern part of the main island of Honshu).

As for the theory of Mr. Yamada at the National Science Museum, I think he's got it wrong. As far as I know the gray whale that breeds in Mexican waters is the fully recovered eastern gray whale, as opposed to the western gray whale that the FAJ representatives are quoted as identifying the specimen as.

This is now the 4th occurrence of a gray whale dying in 2 years, which will again see the issue raised at this year's IWC Scientific Committee meeting. There is coverage of the entanglements on page 12~13 of Annex F of the 2006 IWC/SC report.

An interesting point is that the entanglement and subsequent death of the two whales that died off the coast of Miyagi (immediately south of Iwate) in 2005 occurred in July, at a very different time of year, yet a very similar location.

Regarding the ministerial ordinance of 2001, readers who are literate in Japanese can find materials related to this here, but to briefly summarize a pertinent point, the law makes possible the sale of whales entangled in fixed nets, but whales protected under the marine resource conservation law are not allowed to be sold, even in the case of by-catch in fixed fishing nets. Material on the Internet suggests that officially species falling into this special protection category are
However I also have heard from a Japanese NGO spokesperson that the whaling section of the Fisheries Agency's Far Seas Division said that the western gray whale will also be placed on the list. As far as I can tell, this still doesn't seem to have happened as of yet.

Ironically, reports at the time of the 2001 revision note that it was necessary to explicitly exclude the Blue whale and Bowhead whale from the sale of by-catch provisions, although there were in fact no records of Blue whale or Bowhead whale entanglement having ever occurred. Unfortunately, it has been the gray whale that has suddenly had a spurt of entanglements in a short space of time.

While the officials did the appropriate thing by directing that the carcass of this latest entangled gray whale be incinerated (as it would be were it on the protected list), I hope to see the species explicitly listed sooner rather than later. This may help to raise awareness of the problem this species is facing.

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"The remains will be destroyed at a Kamaishi incineration plant sometime after the 20th"

Hi david,

Indeed the thriving of the Grey whale in your later post is reason for a smile, slime but does indeed show the possabilities for recovery.

Sadly I find it odd in this post regading the entangled Western Grey whale that was incinerated rather than made use of in a sustainable manner, fertilizer or other, what a waste.

Perhaps it makes a mockery of the all is used and none wasted approch we are led to believe prevails. Perhaps it was contaminated as well in some way, I do not know as the original article was in Japanese ( Thanks for the translation btw), and you did not elaborate.

Just curious I thought!
Hi Martin,

The basic policy in Japan is one of not wasting good resources, but recognising that endangered species need to be protected, exceptions are made where endangered species are concerned, as I noted in my piece. I think this is common sense, and as the officials noted, they considered that allow the sale of the whale to proceed could result in international criticism. Interesting that you decide to criticise anyway.

The vast majority of entanglements in set fishing nets involve minke whales. We are probably talking about somewhere between 95% and 99% of entanglements at the current time.

The original article says nothing of contamination, hence my translation says nothing of contamination.
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