Japan's recent announcement from its Fisheries Agency that it plans to hunt 333 Antarctic minke whales over the next four months provides a reminder of how valuable even these small whales are, and the lengths that some people will go to in order to kill them.
Minke whales are the second smallest filter-feeling whales, and yet each one can fetch around $100,000 in countries like Korea where certain consumers believe whale meat is a nutritious, traditional and healthy delicacy. That dollar figure is reported in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management.
Author Kyung-Jun Song of the University of Ulsan's Whale Research Institute wrote that "acquisition of this meat is a powerful incentive for fishers."
Creatures that Live on Dolphins and Whales: Photos
For many years, minke whales have been killed as bycatch, meaning that they supposedly were not the target of fishermen, but instead "accidentally" wound up in nets meant to catch fish and other sea life.
Scientists, however, note that the bycatch deaths are not always accidental.
As Song wrote, "some individuals may wait until minke whales trapped in a set net have drowned, deliberately set fishing gear in places where minke whales frequently occur, or drive minke whales toward fishing gear."
Japan Announces Return To Antarctic Whaling
Marine mammal conservationists like Song therefore believe it's necessary to reduce incentives now held by fishermen and others who currently stand to gain from the whale deaths.
That's no small matter, considering other research from Japan that coincides with the renewed effort to hunt minke whales in Antarctica.
Research led by Genta Yasunaga of the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo reports that pollutants in the bodies of Antarctic minke whales are much lower than that of other whales, including minkes from different regions. Yasunaga and colleagues attribute that to minkes being lower on the food chain than marine mammals like killer whales (orcas). The researchers also write that certain pollutants "have been removed from the Antarctic Ocean surface since the late (1980s)."
Whales Hunting Under Northern Lights: Video
Other studies have concluded that all whales, including minkes, contain toxins that could threaten human health.
Yet schools in Japan - such as the Higashi-machi and Shibaura elementary school in the Minato ward of Tokyo - have served whale meat to students, with officials saying it's very popular and a traditional food there.
In terms of how Japan's resumed whaling will affect the overall minke population and associated ecosystem, the outcome remains unclear. The IUCN admits that "there is no estimate of the global population size" for minkes. It lists the whales as being of Least Concern for conservation, yet also reports on its Red List of Endangered Species that population "declines have been detected or inferred in some areas."
What's clear is that many people stand to earn a lot of money, and perhaps feelings of national pride in defiance of the International Court of Justice, once the killings begin. Should the 333 whales go on the market, their current dollar value could be well over $33 million.