"Mother ship" being built as part of Japan's whaling fleet

Conservation news


ORCA CEO Sally Hamilton is currently on board a cruise ship, and just over half way through a two-week expedition to Antarctica. In this blog, she reflects on the news that Japan is planning to build a gigantic ship to facilitate its planned expansion of whaling, and the fears that this might mean whales in the Southern Ocean are under threat once again.

There is something very strange about being on a ship, with the temporary population of a small town, connected to the rest of the world by wifi and yet in one of the most unspoilt wildernesses on earth. When I was studying marine biology, I don’t think anyone thought such an experience would be remotely possible in our lifetimes, and we’d have to be content with watching it on BBC’s Frozen Planet. And perhaps that was no bad thing, since the marine life of the Antarctic could at least flourish in an environment where human impacts were minimal.

So it was a shock to learn that Japan is building a so-called “mother ship” as part of its whaling fleet. A sort of gigantic whaling Death Star from which smaller ships will set off and return with their catch to be processed. This ship will be able to sail continuously for 60 days and travel 13,000km, and that means the Southern Ocean is within its range, and possibly in its sights.

The company’s president, Hideki Tokoro, told reporters the construction of the ship was part of an intention to preserve “whaling culture."

“We want to contribute to Japan’s food security,” he said. “We designed the ship to be able to travel as far as the Antarctic Ocean, in the hope it will be useful in times of food crisis.

“Unless a new mother ship is built, we cannot pass on our whaling culture to the next generation.”

Evidence does show there isn’t much appetite for whaling culture amongst the next generation anyway, but that has never been an obstacle to Japan making arguments for expanding its operations. And the specific mention of the Antarctic as part of those plans is deeply concerning. In 2016, Japan caused an international outcry by slaughtering 300 minke whales, 200 of which were pregnant females in the Southern Ocean, as part of its “scientific whaling” programme.

But this is a part of the world that is fast becoming a tourist destination, and that’s the main reason ORCA is able to work here. One that, thankfully, doesn’t result in quite the same adverse impacts that tourists have in some parts of the world. And it also means that ORCA has an amazing opportunity to study, inform and educate by being on board.

Despite the fact that keeping the Antarctic a human-free wilderness might protect its wildlife, it is also the case that far more people, governments, cruise and holiday companies and conservationists are now aware and conscious of this fragile wilderness. ORCA's work here is about evidencing the numbers and diversity of Antarctica’s cetacean populations in what is still a relatively little-studied region. In doing this, we are playing a small part in safeguarding it for the next generation.