Japan is making headlines the week before the new year and plenty would argue that it is not in a positive way. Last Wednesday, Japan announced they would be resuming commercial whaling for the first time in over 30 years. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s government chief spokesman, stated the country’s fleet would start commercial whaling operations in July of 2019. The whaling Japan wishes to do will only be done in Japanese territorial waters and its 200-mile exclusive economic zone along their coast. However, they have announced that they will no longer be performing their annual expeditions to the Antarctic and northwest Pacific Oceans.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC), which Japan plans to withdraw from to start commercial whaling again, was created in December of 1946 to “provide the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.” The IWC’s primary duty is “to keep under review and revise as necessary the measures laid down in the Schedule to the Convention which govern the conduct of whaling throughout the world.” Some of these measures include: providing the complete protection of certain species; designating specified areas as whale sanctuaries; setting limits on the numbers and sizes of whales which may be taken; and prohibiting the capture of suckling calves and female whales accompanied by calves.
This international body was created by the terms of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), which was officially signed in Washington, D.C. back in 1946. In 1982, the IWC decided to adopt a moratorium on commercial whaling, based on plummeting whale stocks. With this moratorium, the IWC still allows non-zero whaling quotas for indigenous living as well as for nations wishing to have Scientific Permits for their citizens. It has been through these Scientific Permits that Japan has been able to continue whaling in the Antarctic and elsewhere since 1986.
Japan’s recent announcement was not unexpected, as Japan had failed to win IWC support for their proposal to change IWC’s decision-making process. What Japan had proposed would have made it easier for that nation to obtain votes that could end the commercial whaling ban. Japan emphasized that the moratorium was only supposed to be temporary, with one of its goals being to support sustainable commercial whaling, and that the IWC has since become dysfunctional. Itsunori Onodera, a former Japanese defense minister who advises the Liberal Democratic Party on fisheries, stated he fully supports Japan’s withdrawal. He claims the IWC meetings that he has witnessed have become extremely biased in their views. Fisheries officials in Japan are saying that the populations of certain types of whales, even the minke whale, have recovered sufficiently, which should allow sustainable hunting to begin. Japan also has spoken out about how they wish to prioritize the protection of the practice as part of the nation’s traditional culture.
As soon as Japan made their announcement, an actual world of backlash followed. Michael Grove, the United Kingdom’s Environment Secretary, publicly tweeted about the disappointment they feel towards Japan’s decision and that they will continue to fight for whale protection. Greenpeace disagrees with Japan’s claim that the whale stocks have recovered. Based on their research, most whale populations have not yet recovered, especially blue whales, fin whales, and sei whales. Sam Annesley, Executive Director at Greenpeace Japan, stated, “The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures. The government of Japan must urgently act to conserve marine ecosystems, rather than resume commercial whaling.”
Astrid Fuchs, program lead at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, made a noteworthy point about Japan’s decision. She recently spoke with BBC News stating, “We are very worried that it might set a precedent and that other countries might follow Japan’s lead and leave the commission…especially South Korea where there is an interest in consuming whale meat.” Fuchs also added that without the oversight of the IWC, there are concerns about nations accurately reporting the number of whales caught, which could be extremely dangerous for some populations. Former head of the United Nations Environment Programme Erik Solheim agrees that this decision is dangerous. He has also gone public via Twitter calling for a campaign to urge Japan to reconsider their choice.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Environment Minister Melissa Price made a joint statement expressing their extreme disappointment with Japan’s choice, emphasizing IWC’s critical role in international cooperation on whale conservation. They pointed out that the IWC is the pre-eminent global body responsible for the protection and management of whales. Additionally, IWC leads international efforts to tackle the growing range of threats to whales globally including by-catch, ship strikes, entanglements, noise, and whaling. On behalf of Australia, they are urging Japan to return to the IWC as a matter of priority.
Those not in favor of Japan’s decision to join countries such as Iceland and Norway in their defiance against the ban, are curious to see how the Japanese culture will even respond to whale meat. Back in the 1960s, Japan consumed 200,000 tons of whale meat a year. But this amount has plummeted to around 5,000 tons a year, primarily attributed to no longer needing to depend on whale meat as a primary source of protein (post-World War II), as well as the IWC’s moratorium. Many young people living in Japan have never eaten whale meat and plenty of retailers such as Maruha Nichiro Corp., a major seafood firm, are reluctant to re-enter the business.
There are clearly two sides to this recent announcement by Japan, with the majority claiming this is not a good move for Japan globally.