A third whale has been caught in a cluster of fishing nets off Japan, intensifying calls from campaigners for authorities to intervene.
News of the humpback whale’s death broke just one day after fishermen reportedly drowned a minke whale trapped in the same netting system off the coast of Taiji, 415km south-west of Tokyo.
That whale strayed into the nets on Christmas Eve last year, and another humpback whale, which was later freed, was caught on November 29.
Footage shot yesterday morning (local time) by Japanese activist Ren Yabuki shows fishermen working to untangle the deceased juvenile whale.
The mammal can be seen with its head underwater, trapped within a hole in the thick orange net.
Tim Burns, from US-based activist group Dolphin Project which is working alongside Mr Yabuki to document the region's annual dolphin hunt, said the situation was “shocking”.
“It actually did not swim into the net this time, it appears as though it basically crashed into the outside of the net from the outside,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
“There's a big giant hole there, and the whale has just completely became entangled and it obviously drowned.”
Mr Burns said this is the first time he had witnessed such a quick succession of trappings in his 10 years of activism in the region.
He has issued a plea for authorities to urgently review fishing practices to prevent further deaths.
Expert says whale bycatch a common occurrence
Unlike the minke whale, which was slaughtered for its meat, the humpback can be seen being dragged out to sea by one of the boats.
According to US journalist Jay Alabaster, who has been living in Taiji, the whale appeared to be bloated, making its meat unsuitable for consumption.
Mr Alabaster, who has regular contact with Taiji’s fishermen as part of his PhD studies, said that while the animal’s skin may have been ordinarily harvested, increased media attention likely contributed to their decision to “cut their losses”.
He said upwards of 100 whales are caught accidentally in fishing nets across Japan each year, but the focus is on Taiji because the town hosts an annual dolphin hunt which garners worldwide scrutiny.
“Because the activists are here in Taiji, obviously it’s Taiji who gets all the attention,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
“But this is happening all along this area in Japan.
“There was a fin whale a few towns away and there was another one in the neighbouring prefecture which is along the same coastline, all within a month or so.”
Given the frequency of whale bycatch across Japan, Mr Alabaster does not believe fishermen will likely change their methods.
He said this year the major tide, known as the Kuroshio, is closer to Japan’s main island of Honshu than usual and whales using it as part of their migration are likely being drawn towards the shore.
Authorities set quota of more than 300 whales
Quotas set by Japanese authorities permit fishermen to butcher up to 37 whales this year if they become accidentally caught as by-catch.
This allowance is built into the limit of 383 animals which commercial whaling operations can take in local waters.
A moratorium on commercial whaling was enacted in 1982 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) after whale numbers plummeted around the world, although Japan continued to kill whales for what it said were research purposes.
Japan withdrew from the IWC in 2019, and resumed commercial hunting within its territorial waters and exclusive international zone.
Yahoo News Australia has requested comment from local fishermen about the whale deaths.
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