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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



Whale meat inventory ratio index

Over the new year's holiday (unfortunately it takes me until the middle of February to get around to writing about it) I enjoyed a relaxing time down in Shikoku.

Before I even start, I'll mention a complete aside to this - Kochi prefecture which lies on the South-Eastern side of Shikoku facing the Pacific was in the past an area where whaling apparently took off to quite a degree. And the Shikoku airport through which I transited contains souvenirs from the four prefectures of Shikoku island for travellers to conveniently purchase before they depart for wherever they came from or may be going. Getting to the point of this aside, a souvenir shop at the airport there stocks 3 types of whale foodstuff souvenirs from Kochi prefecture. I sampled the jerky offering (pictured to the right) on this occasion. It was not bad, but there is a Shimonoseki produced jerky offering that I prefer to it.

Getting back on track... while down in Shikoku I had a wealth of relaxation time, and with me I took a copy of Toyo Keizai's 2009 preview edition. (Toyo Keizai is a prominent economics magazine here, and when the financial world and subsequently the world economy collapses this stuff becomes especially interesting). Inside the magazine was a special section covering various economic indicators that currency strategists etc. spend their days pouring over for clues about where the economy is headed and where it has been.

Amongst all of these indicators was mention of "inventory ratio indices", and I thought about the application of this to the whale meat inventory statistics that I present each month.

The Nikkei newspaper's website had a useful definition / description of this particular economic indicator here; below is my translation (there are English descriptions elsewhere for sure though):
Inventory ratio index (在庫率指数)
Industrial production inventory volumes divided by shipment volumes.

Inventory is a result of production, and lags behind economic conditions. Further, inventory increases occur not only in the case of "products not selling", but also when "companies increase production". As such, economic conditions can not be judged by [inventory figures] alone. For that reason, inventory ratio indexes were created by combining inventory and shipment data.

During times of economic expansion, as shipments increase more than increases in inventory, the inventory ratio index decreases, and conversely during times of economic contraction it increases.

Often moves in advance of economic conditions.

As for whale, our basic product of interest, at least with respect to the current Japanese market, it is not the case that inventory is a result of "production" per se, as currently the main source of inventory is "by-product" from government sponsored special permit research programmes, in addition to relatively low levels of indirect by-catch and stranding. In all cases, the "production" of whale product is incidental in nature, and thus it does not hold that inventory would increase or decrease in response to economic conditions. Also, strictly speaking, inventories are believed to include volumes of small cetacean products as well as imported products from recently resumed international trade with those nations permitting commercial whaling operations. However dominating the current reality is incidental, non-commercial "production". Recall also that the bulk of the products available hit the official inventory statistics at two times in the year, coinciding with the return of the pelagic research vessels to Japan.

From the other side of the equation, the rational explanation for shipments to increase is due to increased consumption. The bulk of consumption is "commercial" in nature, although again, a fraction of the special permit by-product is set aside for "public purposes".

In this context I calculated basic inventory ratios for the figures available.

As seen in the graph below, the ratio is all over the place, and although one can look at specific months that stand out, overall it seems sensible to average the ratio over a series of months, using a simple moving average. So, also shown in the graph below is a 12-month SMA in green.

As we can see, back prior to mid 2006, there were some "weak" months where the ratio was well over 12. At a glance it appears that these months occur around the time after the JARPA by-product has hit the inventory figures, but before that by-product has gone on sale. That is, the high value of the ratio occurs in part due to the existing in inventory that isn't yet available for sale. One might attempt to try to correct for this, but well, I don't have time :)
In any case it's clear that the ratio by itself is quite spikey.

Averaged over 12 months (using MS Excel's default calculation method) we can see that the ratio has been hovering just above 6 since around July 2007. Given that whale meat "production" tends to occur at two times during the year, a ratio of 6 (plus a bit) seems to indicate good rates of consumption given current levels of supply.

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Whale meat inventory update - December 2008

Lots of other stuff to write about, so here's the update for the December 2008 whale meat inventory statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (PDF, Excel).

Obviously this wraps up the 2008 year so we can make a few observations versus previous years.

December 2008 outgoing stock: 415 tons

After the relatively large outgoing stock volume in November, December 2008 turned out to be a relative "fizzer", although 415 tons was only down 3% on the same month in December 2007.

December 2008 incoming stock: 229 tons

Also relatively low incoming stock volumes, here down 28% on the same month in the previous year. December is always low though.

December 2008 end-of-month inventories: 3,096 tons

Overall, volumes dropped just under 200 tons, or 6% versus the previous month end, and as of the year end volumes were almost 300 tons less than as of December-end 2007. In fact we have to go back to December 2003 to find a year-end with inventories running lower than this. That year they were significantly lower however, at around 2,150 tons.

December 2008 top inventory regions

The summary of movements in the top stockpile regions:

Stockpile size at
month end
Stockpile size at
previous month end
Tokyo city wards1,4511,551-100

Not much happened, with Tokyo the only region showing 3-digit movement in tons.
Funabashi is still mysteriously static.

Graph: Annual volumes

A total of 7.274 tons recorded as leaving storage in 2008, versus incoming volumes of 7,237 tons. The second straight year of outgoing stock shipments outstripping incoming volumes, but with supply (from mainly non-commercial research programmes) on the decrease, the overall volumes were lower than the previous two years.

Graph: Monthly volumes

With inventory at lower levels at the same time in the previous year, the next question is how low stocks will go in early 2009, prior to the next significant incoming stock hitting the statistics around April.

Graph: Outgoing stock (cumulative)

Graph: Incoming stock (cumulative)

Graph: Regional whale meat inventories

* * *

The January 2009 figures are scheduled for release on the 10th of March.

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A look at "IWC Future" proposal draft

Anyone who has been following the whaling issue over the past few weeks will have probably seen the various news reports about activity that has been going on within the IWC in relation to the future of the organization.

Those who haven't can get up to speed by reading the IWC page here.

As of the 2nd February, a press release has been issued ahead of a further inter-sessional meeting in March, and the page above now includes a document relating to the work. Much has already been said in the western media about this after a copy was leaked to Australian media, and IWC Chair Bill Hogarth of the USA has also been speaking to media about it in advance of the release as well. But if you read my blog, you likely know this already.

In this post I'll take a look at what this apparently controversial draft proposal document has to say. The first two pages are an introductory piece from Alvaro de Soto, SWG Chairman, and I'm going to skip over those, and start from Appendix 1 on page 3.

Re: Chair's Suggestions on the Future of the International Whaling Commission

Reference is made in the first paragraph on page 3 to the state of the IWC, namely that it is
"beset by seemingly fundamental disagreements between Contracting Governments as to its nature and purpose." Indeed this is an accurate and fair statement, although it must be recognised that the intended nature and purpose of the IWC, as described in it's founding convention, is quite clear. Some current IWC signatory states are in denial about this. This is one of the major sources of problems at the IWC, I believe.

Next amongst other things it is suggested that failure to define the course of the IWC by broad agreement could "compromise ... the conservation status of whale populations". I personally think this risk is extremely low - no one in the pro-sustainable whaling bloc wishes to see the world return to the days of unregulated and unsustainable whaling, let alone target truly endangered whale stocks commercially. Japanese officials in particular have recently made reference to the the "Safety Net" initiative regularly in both English and Japanese communications (e.g. see here), and the option of establishing an alternative international organization in accordance with the UNCLOS has also been mentioned explicitly at the IWC by Akira Nakamae. On the other hand, I myself have mentioned the "potential risk" to the conservation status of whale populations to people of the anti-whaling persuasion who for one reason or another fear open-slather. The idea is to bait their good intentions and make them want to accept the IWC's role as a whaling management organization for fear of what might happen if the IWC continues not to fulfil it's mandate. That said, I've never seen any useful response to this tactic.

Back to the document, which however also suggests that at risk is "the continued relevance and credibility of the Commission as an effective global conservation and management body". This is a very fair statement, and I would agree with those who state that the IWC is currently about as endangered as any individual whale species one might care to name. But it is hard to imagine that the IWC can maintain it's relevance while the ICRW continues to not be interpreted in good faith.

Page 4 describes "the approach" to resolving the IWC issues. While four points for consideration are listed with regard to the development of "package" candidates, no real mention of non-endangered, relatively abundant whale species is made. This is problematic to my mind, because, as others have pointed out, one of the most fundamental disagreements at the IWC is what to do with such stocks. Of course everyone wants to see the over-depleted stocks recover.

Further down is one of the most disturbing and disappointing statements in the document:

"It is anticipated that under any result, the total number of whales killed will be reduced during the next five years."

Back on page 2 of the document, it is stated that "we have studiously avoided taking sides". I feel the statement above undermines this assertion of neutrality, and it also contradicts the ICRW itself, which says the following in it's preamble:
"Recognizing that the whale stocks are susceptible of natural increases if whaling is properly regulated, and that increases in the size of whale stocks will permit increases in the number of whales which may be captured without endangering these natural resources"
Why the draft proposal anticipates the total number of whales killed during the next 5 years being reduced is unclear to say the least, especially in light of natural increases in whale populations in certain parts of the world.

Furthermore, from the document's context, it would appear that this statement anticipating fewer whales being killed is with reference to whaling by Japan in particular. Although Japan is the nation permitting the highest levels of catch, Japan is by no means the only nation that permits whaling. The USA itself continues to permit whaling, as do Norway, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), etc. If reducing the number of whales killed is a goal then this expectation should not be made only of Japan, or else the reasons why need to be rationally justified.

But the most disturbing thing about this statement is that it suggests catch limits be set not in light of scientific advice, but in light of what are clearly political considerations. The IWC has been there and done that already, with disastrous results. International management organizations should not be in the habit of arbitrarily setting quotas higher or lower depending on the political circumstances of the day. The decision about what numbers can be safely taken ought be left to scientific advisers. If it so happens that the advice is that lower quotas are appropriate, then so be it. But the absolute numbers should not be relevant to the political decision making. At the IWC the issue of the numbers of whales that can be taken sustainably, be it less, more or the same, must be left to the IWC's Scientific Committee without political interference. The politicians' role should be to determine the policy, and then they should leave the details of the implementation to the scientists. This seemed to be the approach adopted with the development of the Revised Management Procedure, but the draft proposal here appears to throw out that line of thought, despite it's useful feature of preventing politicians from meddling in areas where they do not belong.

One final comment on this. In terms of a proposal being acceptable to the Japanese public, consideration must be given to the availability of whale meat to consumers. Currently the bulk of the relatively low level of whale meat product supply (historically speaking) originates from the Japanese research programmes, and is consequently expensive, even if you can get it. Therefore, a candidate package would to my mind need to ensure limited effects on the level of whale meat supply to gather support from the Japanese public. Indeed, the hope of whale product consumers is that products are more widely available and cheaper in future. One must recall that research whaling was commenced by Japan with the goal of gaining a resumption of commercial whaling, which would enable more whale product production and consumption in Japan. Whale consumers in Japan are not going to be cheering on any proposals that make it even harder for them to obtain whale products. Therefore, any proposal to save the IWC that reduces overall numbers of whales taken (for political reasons) must also fulfil the condition of not resulting in decreases in whale product supply, or else it would not be politically feasible to support for the Japanese government. This might be achieved through reducing the numbers of smaller minke whales taken in exchange for increases in larger whales, if the IWC signatories could agree to go down such a route, but again scientific advice would need to support such an idea.

Moving along... another strange statement says that the interim provisions would need to be "consistent with the management objectives of the ICRW". As with the previous statement, it is hard to see how the draft proposal meets the ICRW's criteria, and the draft proposal itself earlier noted the fundamental disagreement about the nature and purpose of the IWC, which includes it's management objectives, at least where non-endangered, abundant stocks of whales are concerned.

* * *

Time is running out, so a brief look at some crucial bits...

Re: Element 6: Japanese small type coastal whaling

This part of the proposal from the bottom of page 4 describes possible whaling rights for Japan's coastal whalers. One of the scenarios suggested prescribes "constant catches for 5 years and 0 thereafter", while the other is for "constant catches for 5 years with the same level of catches thereafter".

I can appreciate that one of these options would be included in a possible package, but again one must refer back to the ICRW and what it says in it's preamble.

Furthermore, the proposal says that "all meat would be locally consumed". It is not clear whether "local" means "within Japan", or some kind of tighter restrictions. Comments above regarding Japanese whale consumers apply here as well.

Re: Element 23: Research under special permit

The document rightly notes the controversial nature of this item, where it is introduced on page 5. The "elimination" of special permit whaling is suggested as an option, although already today the Minster in charge on the Japan side has explicitly ruled this out. More realistically, in return for permitting some small type coastal whaling, the suggestion is made that "a significant reduction in the number of of whales taken under special permit during the interim period" be considered.

Two options are presented, it looks like one from each perspective.
"Option 1" is hard to make sense of. It suggests a phase-out of special permit whaling in the Antarctic over 5 years. If this was ever going to be acceptable to Japan then there's no point in phasing it - the number of data samples obtained through lethal methods would be reduced year after year making the data more and more useless until finally there was no data at all.
Yet, the same option also says that "All removal levels would be reviewed by the Scientific Committee and consistent with its recommendations." Why is the option prejudging the scientific advice and calling for a phase out of whaling before the recommendations are made? What if the recommendations confirm that Japan's removals do not adversely effect the populations?

"Option 2" seems to come from the different side. Essentially it also subjects the removal levels under special permit to "interim advice" from the Scientific Committee. This is more palatable, but one wonders what would happen in the case that the Scientific Committee is unable to agree on advice. The RMP might be used as a basis for the advice, which perhaps could facilitate this relatively quickly. Option 2 also allows for special permit catches in the western North Pacific. While this bit looks relatively palatable to me, it's obviously not going to be acceptable to the folks in the commercial anti-whaling industry.

* * *

That's it for now - lots of stuff I've skipped, but feel free to comment on the bits of the document that you do and don't like. I hope to revisit this further when I have more time.

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Hanshin cheers customers with whale meat promotion

Making the news both in Japan and abroad this week was a special sales promotion in central Japan.

Originally breaking the story was the Asahi newspaper's Kansai region edition, with the headline "Whale meat sold off at less than half-price Osaka - Hanshin department store".

"Blow away the recession!", starts the Asahi article.

The Yomiuri's online Osaka edition also ran the story with the headline, "Whale meat on sale at prices of 30 years ago"

"So as to make familiar the taste of whale meat, which sky-rocketed in price after the cessation of commercial whaling, Hanshin department store in Umeda, Osaka, commenced a sale at less than half the normal prices", says the Yomiuri. "Sale lasts until the 31st".

"It's precisely because of the economic gloom that we are selling the now-luxury foodstuff of whale meat at cheap prices", is the theme of the promotion. The store bought in a ton of Sei whale obtained through research whaling, and set prices at 248 yen / 100 g for red meat, and 420 yen for blubber, the same as about 30 years ago" (Yomiuri).

"From the 27th of January Hanshin department store started selling off Sei whale meat at less than half the normal price. Hanshin says it is precisely because of the bad economic situation that they want customers to eat whale meat at low prices , noting that whale has become a luxury food item. This was the first time that this store has run such a promotion. Prices are set to return to normal from the 1st of February".

"In Hanshin's sales area on the first floor below ground level, shoppers had their eyes fixed on the whale products. Items included meat (15 kg block, before being cut up), and long (90 cm) strips of blubber" (Asahi).

"As for the prices, they were said to be set at the same level as the early 1980's, before the cessation of commercial whaling and subsequent sky-rocket in prices."

The Asahi, like the Yomiuri, reports the precise price details.

A 65-year old housewife who bought whale for the first time in 10 years said "I'll enjoy the nostalgic taste" (Asahi). A similar customer, definitely the same lady, is quoted by the Yomiuri: "I often ate whale for school lunch, but recently it's become too expensive and I couldn't buy it. This evening I hope to enjoy this as sashimi."

The story later appeared in the Asahi's national edition online, and the picture of the sales area even made the "top picture" in the Asahi news headlines that automatically stream into my mobile phone every 30 minutes.

* * *

Later in the foreign media, an AFP story appeared.

Basically the story is the same as the Japanese version, although interestingly the AFP journalist comes at the matter from a different angle:
"Mr Matsui did not comment on whether the store had been losing money before starting the offer but said sales have more than doubled since the prices were cut on Tuesday."
It's not clear whether the journalist was referring the the sales of the store in general, or whale meat sales in particular, but if it were the latter and the journalist is wondering whether the whale meat sales were making money, it's hard to imagine why the store would do something like buy in a ton of extra of the product just so they could sell it off at less than half price! Sometimes it's a mystery what these foreign journalists are smoking.

But that was nothing - an Italian site also ran a story, but the original theme in the Japanese story is lost completely:

"Japan: Crisis, whale meat half price", reads the headline (the original site uses upper case letters, seemingly for "effect")
"The economic crisis is truly hitting all sectors, and even Japan's passion for whale meat has been effected."
Right from the outset the article is off the mark. The Japanese stories and even the AFP story report that the store operator is looking to use the limited offer whale meat promotion to brighten up their customers.
"The main shopping centre in Osaka has decided to put whale meat on sale at half price"
This much is correct...
... " in spite of criticisms from many countries who believe that Japan should respect the international ban on whale hunting."
There is no reason why domestic private sector retail promotions should take in to consideration the international situation with regards to whaling. Japanese people also eat beef without respect for what non-beef eating cultures think. It is strange that the Italian article author would expect Japanese retailers to behave as certain foreigners would wish, rather than as they the Japanese themselves wish to.
"Instead of adhering to the moratorium set by the International Whaling Commission, Japanese authorities continue to avoid it justifying whale hunting with a vague "scientific research" explanation. Now they have decided to cut prices, trying to increase consumption of the precious meat."
It wasn't the authorities that decided to sell the meat at cut prices, it was a private retail outlet operator, and the reason they bought in the ton of meat and put it on sale was to brighten (and probably lure) customers. The only link between "Japanese authorities" and Hanshin department store is that both are ... Japanese.
"A move that is in contrast to official reasoning, explaining that traditionally in Japan, whale meat is eaten by common people."
Despite getting the story wrong, the article spouts this nonsense as well. It's obvious to any calm thinking, rational person that normal trends in whale meat retail will not hold while Japan continues to abide by the IWC's commercial whaling moratorium.
"The manager of the Osaka shopping centre, Tadashi Matsui, has decided to sell 100 grams of whale meat for 248 yen, of just over 2 euro, compared to its full price of 630 yen or 5 euro. Greenpeace estimates that Japan hunts hundreds of whales per year, the rest are hunted by Norway and Iceland."
Greenpeace "estimate" the figures, which are publicly available at the IWC's website in through other public sources, to give the impression that Japan is conducts it's research programmes in secret. On the contrary, the quotas are announced and actual numbers taken are released as well. It hardly takes skill or special knowledge to estimate figures that are already in the public domain!

So welcome once again to the wacky world of the foreign anti-whaling media. It's amazing how far a story can be twisted when some journalists have been instilled with certain preconceptions and misinformation. The reference in the article to Greenpeace seems to be indicative of the reason for the gross inaccuracy of this article.

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