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ISANA No.34 ISANA Dec. 2007 No.34
  1. Whale Strandings in Hokkaido
    Takashi Matsuishi (Representative Stranding Network Hokkaido)
    (Associate Professor Faculty of Fisheries Sciences Hokkaido University)

  2. Whale dishes recommended
    Chizue Yamagiwa (Cooking expert)

  3. New relationships between whales and humans
    Mitsuki Sasaki (2nd grade Aoba Junior High School in Ishinomaki City)

Whale Strandings in Hokkaido

photo Takashi Matsuishi
Representative Stranding Network Hokkaido
Associate Professor Faculty of Fisheries Sciences Hokkaido University

Whale strandings

  The drifting or landing of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) on beaches as a result of their weakness or death or losing their migration routes is called "stranding." In olden times, such whales were called "yori-kujira" (stranded whales) in Japan. In a book entitled "Honcho Shokkan," Hitomi Hitsudai, a botanist in the early days of the Edo Period (1603-1868), wrote: "Big whales, called yori-kujira, drifted ashore in the hundreds, and died being dried by the sun, not able to return to the sea. It is reported that the villagers near the shore were delighted by this coming. People traded in whale meat and officials of the provincial government became greatly rich. Sometimes, whales were stranded after long rains and typhoons passed over the sea, carried by high waves to the shore. This means receiving gifts from heaven without exposing our lives to risk." Whale bones have been found from shell mounds of the Jomon period (circa 10000-300 BC) in various parts of Japan. But, as only a limited number of regions had the means of engaging in whaling actively, it is conjectured that stranded whales had been used as food in many places. Folklore has been handed down among the Ainu aboriginal people in Ezo (the old name for Hokkaido, northern Japan) that they had been delighted to receive stranded whales as a gift that the gods sent them to save the village. They dedicated a dance to feast on the stranded whales and used the meat with gratitude.

  Whale stranding is not only a past record. Even today, many cetaceans strand or beach on the shore. The Institute of Cetacean Research has been collecting data on the stranding of marine mammals (beaching, bycatch, drifting and straying-in). In 2006, about 350 cases of cetacean strandings were reported throughout Japan.

Strandings in Hokkaido

  Thirty-six cases, or about 10% of the reported strandings, occurred in Hokkaido where I live. The species for which the largest number of stranding reports was made was the minke whale, followed by the harbor porpoise, Stejnegerís beaked whale, Dall's porpoise and the Pacific white-sided dolphin. During the past decade, over 16 species of cetaceans were reported to have been stranded. Monthly reports show that strandings occur in larger numbers from spring to summer, with the number declining from fall to winter. This is probably because it becomes difficult for people to approach the coastlines during winter to observe strandings. Further, a lack of balance was observed between stranding locations. There were five locations where no single stranding was reported for a distance of over 80 kilometers during the past decade. I think that, considering from the stranding situation in the surrounding areas, it was probably because of the human factor of low observation/report rates as it is difficult to consider that the locations where no reports were made have some special characteristics for not causing strandings.


Activities of the Stranding Network Hokkaido

  The above situation leads us to think that more whale strandings than actually reported are occurring in Hokkaido. But it is considered that there are many cases where a stranding is left unreported due to such reasons as that those who find strandings do not know where to report them. Also there are a number of cases where information is conveyed to scientists after the municipal offices disposed of the whale carcasses so species identification and other scientific research cannot be carried out. There are a number of whale scientists who want to research the stranded individuals, but smooth cooperation in the research has been difficult as they did not have an adequate communication system.

  For this reason, the Stranding Network Hokkaido (SNH) was established in January 2007, with the cooperation and advice of whale scientists and people interested in whales in Hokkaido, with the aim to make clear where to report in case a stranding is found, smooth out the communications among whale scientists regarding information collection and research, and facilitate the exchanges of specimens and cooperation in research.

  Most important in the SNH's activity program is the system of receiving information. For this purpose, we have set up an exclusive "Hokkaido Cetacean Emergency Call Number" (090-1380-2336). This is a pre-paid mobile phone number, which the member in charge carries with him or her so that we can respond to bycatch information from fishermen early in the morning. We have also made available an exclusive mailing address: to enable the sending of photos from mobile phones.

  Once the SNH receives information on a stranding, the Secretariat will swiftly convey it to members on the mailing list. Further, detailed information including photos will be posted on the SNH website ( Anyone who wishes to go to the stranding site after receiving information can do so by keeping contact with the SNH Secretariat. In case collected specimens are to be retained, the SNH will prepare necessary documents for reporting to the Fisheries Agency.


Whale strandings link man with the oceans and whales

  There are over 80 species of cetaceans throughout the world, half of which, or about 40 species, are found in the sea near Japan. Information is very limited, except for a handful of species. Much remains unknown about their habitat, migration, distribution, numbers and ecology.

  Whales provide a diversity of information on the oceans by migrating for a long time, consuming plankton and a variety of fish species, possessing parasites, and being infected by viruses. As strandings provide us with such information, we come to know not only about whales but the oceans in general through scientific research on stranded whales.

  In scientific research on stranded whales, whale scientists identify species from the photos, extract DNA from the blubber and meat, and make observations of internal organs. Through such research, new species can be found at times. Regarding rare species, we can take conservation measures by closely studying the cause of death. Regarding abundant species, we can estimate the number of individuals near fishing grounds and how much of what fish species targeted in fisheries they consume so that we can use that information for preventing damage caused by whales to fisheries.

  Such stranding activities provide very valuable opportunities to get in touch with whales not only for scientists but also for the general public. By encountering whale strandings, we can learn a lot and have opportunities to think about whales. In short, whale strandings link man with the whales and the oceans.

   It is the hope of the SNH that it can contribute to the study of cetaceans through research and information collection on whale strandings and increase opportunities for many people to know and think about whales.

Stranded Risso's dolphin,which is rarely seen in Hokkaido

Stranded dolphins are measured and anatomized in the lab

Joint research of a stranded gray whale in Tomakomai(july,2007)

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