Photo/IllutrationWhale meat is unloaded from the the Nisshin Maru in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Oct. 5. (Shinjiro Sadamatsu)

SHIMONOSEKI, Yamaguchi Prefecture--Japan’s first commercial whaling season in 31 years ended with 256 whales caught, or 97 percent of the quota, drawing relief in some quarters but unable to erase all doubts about the industry’s future.

When the main whaling ship Nisshin Maru slowly docked at Shimonoseki Port here on Oct. 4, it marked the end of this year’s commercial whaling operations, which had resumed on July 1 following the dispute between Japan and the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Workers at local restaurants specializing in whale meat dishes and city officials waited near the shore for the return of the ship.

“Before departing the port, I was worried about whether or not there were whales, but now I’m relieved,” said Nisshin Maru captain Koji Eguchi, 57.

Shimonoseki had once been prosperous as a base for ships that hunted whales in the Antarctic Ocean during the Showa Era (1926-1989). Local leaders now plan to revive the city as a “whale town.”

After being briefed by Eguchi about the catch, Shimonoseki Mayor Shintaro Maeda said: “If you come here, you can eat delicious whale meat. That’s what I am aiming for.”

Whaling vessels from other areas with whaling traditions, including Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, completed their hunts in late September, bringing in 33 whales.

The whale meat will be distributed on the market from November. But demand for whale meat has been declining, and it is unclear if all the meat will be sold.

The Japan Whaling Association estimates that the amount of whale meat caught in commercial whaling will be only 60 percent of the total from “research whaling.”

Under the research whaling program, Japan hunted whales for the purpose of studying the mammals and coming up with conservation methods. However, other countries, including Australia, said the “research” aspect was simply a guise.

In September last year, the general assembly of the IWC rejected Japan’s proposal to resume commercial whaling.

The Abe government decided to withdraw from the IWC, end its research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean and the North Pacific Ocean, and resume commercial whaling within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Fisheries Agency calculated the quota for commercial whaling based on what would be a sustainable number, even after 100 years of whaling, to avoid protests from the international community.

This year, Japan came up nine short of the limit for minke whales. But it reached the 25 quota for sei whales, which were not believed to live within Japan’s EEZ.

The quota of 187 Bryde’s whales, whose habitat and migration patterns were previously unknown, was also met.

Around 75 percent of the whale meat that arrived at Shimonoseki Port on Oct. 4 was from Bryde’s whales, which are unpopular among consumers because of the odor.

Minke whales captured in the Antarctic Ocean are considered the best quality. But Japan does not have access to them because it has stopped research whaling.

“I will call for expanding the whaling quotas and the types of whales to the Fisheries Agency,” said Eiji Mori, president of Kyodo Senpaku Co., which operates the Nisshin Maru.

However, such changes would take a long time to implement.

In addition to the reduced amount of whale meat, a decline in whale prices from a lack of demand would further hurt the industry and likely lead the central government to continue providing an annual whaling subsidy of 5.1 billion yen ($48 million) to the industry.

(The article was written by Shinjiro Sadamatsu, Koichi Fujimaki and Hirobumi Ohinata.)