I’ve taken a a number of calls from people in Japan recently. And for the first time there is open talk of a Japanese withdrawal from whaling in Antarctica. Here are the reasons.

1) to meet the new MARPOL regulations, the vessels cannot use standard heavy oil. The Nisshin Maru runs heavy oil. There is an alternative fuel for the vessel, but it is more expensive. So the Japanese can get around the fuel requirement, albeit at a price.

2) but the ships must also have double skins. The processing ship (Nisshin Maru) as well as the harpooners are all single skinned. They cannot be modified to meet the requirement. So Japan has a choice to either ignore the new MARPOL regulations, which they are signatory to, or to abide by them and stop whaling. Or they could build a new fleet, but that is unlikely. and will take several years.

Japan has ignored certain things in the past of course. They continue to whale in southern ocean in breach of some IWC resolutions, however these have less significance compared with the MARPOL regulations. It is a big step up, and Japan will tread carefully on this. In many ways the new regulations give Japan a face saving out. They can argue they must withdraw, rather than giving protest groups the satisfaction of saying they were forced out.

3) Japan has lost money this year. According to Japanese sources, they went down there this year with a goal of 300 whales, which is according to some, a break even number with the number of vessels involved. Two harpooners were assigned as security vessels, and the were ready and waiting for the Bob Barker and Steve Irwin as soon as they arrived in Antarctica. From there they followed sscs for much of the campaign. The Japanese had already decided to have but a single harpooner running. For most of the campaign they got 5 whales per day from this. But their campaign was cut short when the Nisshin Maru was finally located. So the whaling company has lost money, probably in the range of $5m – $7.

4) Japan, despite rhetoric to the contrary, cares deeply about their international image. There is growing recognition in japan that the whaling is not worth the few jobs it creates, given the looming PR losses they incur. The government has been forceful in commanding the fleet this year to have no major incidences. The 2009 / 2010 campaign was a PR disaster for Japan. Their government wanted no repeat in 2010 / 2011. In many ways they achieved this, with little in the way of major incidents this year. But in demanding no major incidences, the fleet is hamstrung. They cannot continue to whale in front of protesters, something they often did in past battles with Greenpeace.

5) There are senior diplomatic negotiations between Japan and the US, over Japan withdrawing from Antarctica, in exchange for limited commercial whaling activities in Japanese waters and the northern pacific. This discussion was had last year, only it involved a gradual withdrawal from Antarctica, something totally unpalatable to many environmental groups. Now for the first time, Japan has an immediate cessation of antarctic whaling on the table. This is a big step.

6) The final comment from one of my Japanese friends was that Japan is a different place now. The government is looking to make changes, and one of them will perhaps be whaling which is a festering saw that has largely been ignored. Until the 2009 / 2010 campaign, little was really discussed in Japan over this issue. Now the country is well aware it is increasingly prepared to deal with it.

So what will happen from here. Well the senior talks between the US and japan will continue, and there will be announcements at the IWC meeting in Jersey around mid July. If the Japanese will withdraw from Antarctica remans to be seen. But it does seem increasingly likely that this will happen. And it will be a great day to see the southern ocean finally revert to being the whaling sanctuary that so many countries and organisations have fought so long and hard for.