whale watching

Whale-watching tours, like this one in Canada, have an estimated global economic impact of $2.1 billion per year. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Japan has a bad reputation for killing whales and dolphins en masse, practices that persist despite mounting international criticism — including a recent U.N. ruling that declared some of the country's whale hunts illegal. But the tide of public opinion is also turning inside Japan, where a 2012 poll found 90 percent of respondents hadn't bought whale meat in a year. And as Japan's interest in whaling wanes, another, more mutually beneficial industry is helping take its place: whale watching.

Tour operators from across coastal Japan gathered in Tokyo this week for the inaugural meeting of the Japan Whale and Dolphin Watching Council, a new industry organization they've created to promote marine mammals as eco-tourism resources rather than sources of seafood.

Japan already has a robust whale-watching industry, but it's often overshadowed abroad by the country's notorious whale and dolphin harvests. Established in the 1980s, it now includes some 200 tour operators who served more than 200,000 tourists in 2013. And with a yearly growth rate of 6 percent, Japan is actually in the top 10 percent of the global whale-watching market.

Most of the customers on these tours are Japanese, says Matthew Collis of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), suggesting the industry is capitalizing on — and possibly even encouraging — a cultural shift in the way Japan interacts with the intelligent cetaceans off its coasts.

"I think it's demonstrating that there's a new generation in Japan that doesn't look at whales as food, but looks at them as the living, breathing, magnificent creatures that they are," Collis tells Radio Australia, adding that whales "are far more fun to shoot with a camera than with a harpoon."

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin

The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin is one of several cetaceans hunted in Japan that may benefit from eco-tourism. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Commercial whaling was banned globally in 1985, but Japan has long exploited a loophole by claiming its Southern Ocean whale hunts support science. The country is widely criticized for that — including by the International Court of Justice, which has declared those hunts illegal — as well as for harvests of smaller, more local cetaceans, like the mass dolphin killings featured in "The Cove."

Meanwhile, whale watching has become a big business worldwide, with a total economic impact of $2.1 billion across 120 countries, according to an IFAW report. And it could be vital in weaning Japan off whaling, especially in rural or coastal communities far from the economic options of Tokyo.

"Those very same people who operate in boats out of these fishing villages to go whaling," Collis says, "have the same means at their disposal potentially for operating whale-watching businesses."

Research has already shown that sharks and other sea creatures are often worth more alive than dead, and cetacean tourism may similarly benefit Japan more than hunting whales or dolphins can.

"The economic benefits are much more widespread than the meager funds associated with whaling, which is actually an activity heavily subsidized by the government," IFAW whale specialist Patrick Ramage tells Agence France-Presse. "It doesn't pay its own way anymore."

Russell McLendon is science editor at MNN. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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