As the world's biggest consumer of whale meat, Japan has a special interest in whale conservation. While fighting tenaciously to protect its whaling industry, it publicly supports the need for conservation. In a statement released last June, for example, it called on the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to “protect endangered and depleted species, while allowing the sustainable utilization of abundant species under a controlled, transparent and science-based management regime”.

Japan has placed considerable emphasis on research into whaling. It spends about ¥830 million (US$7 million) each year to establish whether there are enough whales to support whaling (and in the case of the minke, at least, it finds that there are). And it works hard to get support in the IWC, sometimes from member nations that have no obvious interest in whaling. Two weeks ago, many of these countries sent representatives to a meeting in Tokyo — boycotted by the Western nations most strongly opposed to whaling — at which Japan reaffirmed its commitment to the goal of sustainable whaling.

When it comes to events on the high seas, however, Japan's actions leave much to be desired.

When it comes to events on the high seas, however, Japan's actions leave much to be desired. Lately, for example, there have been repeated cases of western grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus) being caught in Japanese fishing nets. Only about 120 of these whales, which migrate along the Pacific coasts of Asia, are thought to survive, although a much larger, sustainable population of eastern grey whales lives off the west coast of North America. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates that the population of reproductive female western grey whales totals only about 30 animals. But four females have been trapped in Japanese fishing nets and accidentally killed in the past two years.

Japan has expressed concern over this issue. Its fisheries agency says it has been asking fishermen to report sightings of the whales, and to release them when trapped, instead of keeping them and selling their meat, as permitted under the law. The agency claims that its effort has worked so far, with no meat from grey whales being sold on the market.

However, the agency's efforts have not actually prevented the deaths, even though much could be done to that end, including supporting better research into the whales' migration and breeding habits, and the development and use of fishing nets that can release trapped animals. One might expect the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which heads Japan's research whaling programme, to take charge of this effort. But it says that responsibility rests with other research institutes and with the fisheries agency. The overall result has been inaction.

The ICR is often characterized by its critics as little more than a cover for Japan's whaling industry. If it is to claim a real role in whale conservation, it could start by responding more energetically to the clear and present danger to the grey whale.