A chance for Japan to build something better from ruins

Just hours before you can double your donations to EIA’s Cetaceans Campaign via the Big Give Christmas Challenge 2013, EIA co-founder/director Jennifer Lonsdale gives a personal view of Japanese coastal whaling and the ongoing impacts of 2011’s devastating tsunami.

Our Cetaceans Campaign has achieve many major successes, such as pressing for key internet brands such as Amazon Japan and Google to drop whale and dolphin products and adverts for them, but we can only do so much because of your help.

Please take a minute or two this week to help us reach our target of £20,000 in the Big Give Christmas Challenge by logging on to our project page here and making a donation at 10am on December 5, 6 or 7.

Dall's porpoise hand harpoon, Otsuchi, Japan (c) EIA

Dall’s porpoise hand harpoon, Otsuchi, Japan – November 2013 (c) EIA

.Reports from the Philippines of the almost unbelievable destruction, terror and suffering caused by Typhoon Hiayan have dominated the media.

Within just a few weeks, the volume of reports will dwindle away and, for much of the world, this disaster will be confined to history books, search engines and statistics along with so many other disasters, large and small. The clean-up and rebuilding in the Philippines will take years; the suffering of those who have lost so much will continue for lifetimes.

Ruins of a book store in Kamaichi, Japan - November 2013 (c) EIA

Ruins of a book store in Kamaichi, Japan – November 2013 (c) EIA

During a recent visit to Japan to launch the new EIA report Toxic Catch, my colleague Sarah Baulch and I visited the Iwate coast in north-east Japan. The low mountains were a glorious autumn broad leaf extravaganza of red, gold and green, overlooking the fjord-like coastline and the stunning blue Pacific. In quiet streets, markets, shops and restaurants, there was an air of a good life far from the metropolitan buzz of Tokyo. This is where, however, on March 11, 2011, everything changed for the people of this region in a few terrifying minutes as the earthquake and tsunami struck, causing devastation and loss beyond what we can imagine. This area is a stark reminder of the fragility of life and the longevity of tragedy.

The Iwate coast has been the focus of EIA investigations for the past two decades because it is the centre of the Japanese Dall’s porpoise hunt, with more than half a million porpoises killed in the past 70 years. In the late 1980s, tens of thousands were taken each year. More recently, partly due to the work of EIA, the numbers dropped to about 7,000 a year. With official quotas being set without robust scientific research to ensure the sustainability of the porpoise populations, with the methods used to kill them unacceptably cruel, and with levels of pollutants making the meat and blubber a serious health threat to consumers, we have repeatedly called on the Government of Japan to bring the hunts to an end.

On 3-11 – as it has become known in Japan – the tsunami wrecked boats and harbours, killed 20,000 people (including large numbers of fishermen) and destroyed homes, businesses and the infrastructure of the small fishing towns in this region.

Otsuchi harbour wall, Japan - November 2013 (c) EIA

Otsuchi harbour wall, Japan – November 2013 (c) EIA

In  Otsuchi, where EIA has repeatedly documented the landing and processing of hundreds of Dall’s porpoises, about 1,200 people died and many thousands lost their homes, possessions – everything. More than 80 per cent of the fishing boats based in Otsuchi, including those used for porpoise hunting, were lost. The processing factories EIA knew so well are gone; they simply don’t exist anymore.

In 2011, when we learnt the extent of the damage and destruction, we hoped the Dall’s porpoise hunt may end. However 1,200 animals were killed in 2012. We were in Iwate last month to investigate the potential for reinvestment in this hunt and whether it might be restored to its former capacity.

It was a shock to see that two-and-a-half years after 3-11, the evidence of disaster is everywhere and the small coastal towns are essentially large reconstruction sites. We passed mountains of rubble which so obviously included personal possessions as well as wood and detritus. New graveyards were evident along the coast. Tears were never far away the whole time I was there and I was stunned by the bravery of people going about their everyday lives as though this is a perfectly normal place; great excitement reigned as Sendai won the top Japanese baseball trophy of the season.

We met people who had lost homes, possessions, family and friends. They spoke of that day, and of the days and weeks that followed, the struggle to build new lives and the problems the communities face after so much loss and destruction. Children and adults alike bear lifelong scars and experience nightmares of the day that everything changed. As if that were not enough, they fear the effects of the radiation continuing to leak from Fukushima nuclear plant. People extended the hand of kindness and friendship to us and we felt not like voyeurs but welcome visitors.

Kamaichi harbour wall, Japan - November 2013 (c) EIA

Kamaichi harbour wall, Japan – November 2013 (c) EIA

Walking around the port area we saw the great harbour walls, built to protect the towns from the elements but unable to resist the elemental power of the tsunami. They bear cracks, holes and ‘graffiti’ from boats and other large debris thrown at them by the irresistible wave. The harbour areas appear derelict, as though from years of neglect, but the footprints of so many homes swept away with all their personal contents point to just how much was lost such a short time ago.

A couple of towns we visited had brand new harbours busy with the unloading of fish and squid and returning to a semblance of business as usual. However, so many boats and fishermen were lost and those who survived have not received sufficient compensation to replace their vessels. Some are pooling compensation pay-outs for investment in a new, shared boat. It is likely that the fishing capacity in the region will be much reduced for years to come. In Otsuchi, the construction has a long way to go.

It would seem that mass the processing of Dall’s porpoises may not return for a while.

We documented about 15 vessels equipped to hunt Dall’s porpoises, with their tell-tale small but deadly harpoon heads on long shafts. In addition, they carried similar harpoons with three-pronged heads used to catch tuna and marlin. The Dall’s porpoise hunting season had just opened but none appeared ready to go hunting and one fisherman said he was after octopus. We concluded that the hunt will continue this year as it did last year – at a much lower level than in recent history.

Dall's porpoises awaiting processing in Iwate, Japan, in March 1999 (c) EIA

Dall’s porpoises awaiting processing in Iwate, Japan, in March 1999 (c) EIA

You may ask if it is fair for us to continue EIA’s campaign to end the hunting of Dall’s porpoise in an area that has suffered so much loss and which struggles to reclaim something approaching a normal existence. The answer is, and has to be, ‘yes’. These animals are suffering the impact of decades of overhunting and even Japanese scientists express concern about decimation of the porpoise populations. The Japanese Government does nothing to ensure these hunts are sustainable. The methods used to kill them are unacceptably cruel and Dall’s porpoises are suffering the impact of living in the coastal waters of a highly modern industrial society and carry worrying levels of mercury, PCBs and other contaminants. In short, they are toxic and no-one should be consuming the products from these hunts.

EIA will continue to call on the Government of Japan to end the hunting of Dall’s porpoises and other small whales and dolphins in its coastal waters, and to work with the communities to find alternative livelihoods.

Watching porpoises instead of hunting them could be an economically viable option that may contribute in a small but significant way to the recovery of this decimated region.