Tokyo: The Fisheries Agency plans to introduce a new vessel that will replace the ageing Nisshin Maru, the 8,145-tonne mother ship of the Japanese research whaling fleet in the Antarctic and Pacific oceans.
The agency plans to begin work on a basic plan in fiscal 2018 for the introduction of a new mother ship. The introduction is apparently intended to make clear Japan’s plans to continue whaling, a move likely to draw fire from antiwhaling countries, such as the United States, Australia and countries in Europe.
“Even though the ship has been painted over, rust that can’t be hidden stands out. It is old, aged nearly 100 in human years,” a person familiar with the research whaling program said of the 30-year-old Nisshin Maru. The person saw off the vessel as it departed with 102 people aboard from Innoshima island, Hiroshima Prefecture, last November. The ship was headed for the Antarctic Ocean.
The Nisshin Maru was built in 1987 as a trawler, a type of ship that pulls a massive net. It was remodelled into a whaling mother ship in 1991. Whales caught by small research vessels can be pulled onto the deck of the 130-meter-long mother ship to be butchered. Up to 1,200 tons of whale meat can be kept in a freezer under the deck.
The mother ship’s engine and main parts of its body are still original material after 30 years. In the wake of fires in 1998 and 2007, the ship resumed operation on both occasions after the interior was repaired.
“We are concerned that if the engine breaks down, the ship won’t operate as there are no replacement parts for it,” a person involved in the whaling programme said.
The introduction of a new mother ship is also aimed at countering the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has repeatedly obstructed Japanese whaling activities in the Antarctic Ocean.
According to the Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research, a sabotage vessel approached a Japanese whaling ship and directed laser beams at the ship’s crew in February 2011. A Japanese whaling ship was also rammed by a sabotage vessel in February 2013.
In recent years, Sea Shepherd has introduced a series of high-speed ships. The Ocean Warrior vessel dispatched by the group to the Antarctic Ocean in fiscal 2016 is capable of sailing at more than 40kph, nearly double the speed of the Nisshin Maru.
Sea Shepherd has stated that it will no longer obstruct Japanese whaling vessels. However, Takeharu Bando, chief of the research whaling team that left for the Antarctic Ocean on the Nisshin Maru, said, “We need a strong and fast ship that can withstand sabotage activities.”
Strong backlash expected
According to sources familiar with the matter, the idea of constructing a new ship emerged around 2005. A design for the new ship was completed and a shipbuilding company was selected. However, the plan sparked protests from environmental conservation groups, leading the company to withdraw from the project. The plan subsequently fell through.
Plans for a new mother ship were resurrected at the behest of pro-whaling lawmakers. A bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the government to take measures against antiwhaling activities, leading to the enactment of a new law in June 2017 that recognises research whaling as a “national duty.”
The Fisheries Agency has included about 100 million yen ($900,000, Dh3.3 million) in a fiscal 2018 draft budget to study the introduction of a new whaling ship. The idea of purchasing a large foreign fishing vessel and converting it into a whaling ship, rather than building a new one, has also been floated.
Western countries could oppose the introduction of a new ship.
“Many countries distrust Japan, which continues to kill whales in the name of research using massive subsidies,” said Nanami Kurasawa, secretary general of the civic group Iruka and Kujira (Dolphin and Whale) Action Network. “The renewal of the mother ship would attract heavy criticism.”
Regarding the new mother ship plan, a Foreign Ministry senior official also said, “The move will undoubtedly provoke a strong backlash from antiwhaling countries.”