Japan set to restart commercial whaling in New Year

Japan have confirmed they will begin commercial whaling again for the first time in over 30 years in what has been widely viewed as a big step backwards in efforts to conserve whale populations.

Sei whale killed by a Japanese whaling vessel

Some unwelcome news for conservationists this Christmas as Japan revealed they will begin commercially hunting whales in the New Year. Japan announced on Boxing Day that it would be pulling out of a 32 year old international agreement against commercial whaling to resume the practise. The announcement to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was met with widespread disapproval and condemnation from world leaders and conservation groups alike. The move is seen as a dangerous step backwards in efforts to conserve whale populations that have been endangered by historic unsustainable hunting in the early 20th century. The announcement follows years of controversial behaviour by the Japanese who have repeatedly used loopholes in legislation for ‘scientific’ whaling. Japan are now being strongly urged to change their mind before they do irreversible damage to whale populations in their waters. If the decision is not reversed whaling by commercial vessels will resume in Japanese waters from July 2019.

What is the IWC?

The International Whaling Commission was created in 1986 and consists of 86 nation whose aim is to regulate whaling and conserve global whale populations. All members have agreed to a zero take catch limit for commercial whaling and work to help boost existing populations by monitoring numbers and introducing conservation measures such as marine protected areas. Whilst they do not allow commercial whaling the IWC does issue quotas for traditional subsistence whaling and for scientific research based on population data it collects from its members. This has often been criticised and determining what qualifies for these exemptions has historically been a very grey area. The agreement also only applies to a countries exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is the waters surrounding their own country, this has led to some controversial activity in international waters. The IWC also has very limited sanctions to punish countries who break the rules or are involved in questionable behaviour. However despite their shortcomings the IWC is continually improving and remains the only real line of defence for the whale species who are victims of the industry.

Japanese whaling history

Japan has a long standing history with the practise of whaling much of which is shrouded with controversy and violence. They were the biggest consumers of whale meat during the 20th century with its residents eating over 200,000 tonnes a year in the 1960’s. They eventually under much pressure joined the IWC in 1986 but have since used loopholes in the legislation to gain quotas for whaling for scientific research and have often been suspected of providing false data to boost numbers they can take. They have also come under fire for selling the meat left over from their research at inflated prices to the public. They claim this funds their research, however it has been argued by critics that this classifies as commercial whaling and should not be allowed under the ban. Due to historic overfishing and continued exploitation populations of minke, fin, gray and sei whales have all been damaged in the area.

A minke whale is offloaded from a scientific whaling vessel in Japan

Japanese whalers have also been criticised for partaking in ‘research’ expeditions in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica in recent decades. Due to the fact this takes place in international waters it is near impossible to regulate by legal means. Hundreds of individuals of multiple species of whale are killed on each of these expeditions which the government still claims is for scientific purposes. Opponents have described the Antarctic expeditions as unnecessarily barbaric and cruel. The expeditions have caused friction between Japan and the IWC and in particular Australia who have been its biggest critics, due to the fact their localized whale populations are affected. The hunt is made even more contentious as the IWC has been trying to set up a protected whale sanctuary for targeted species in the area for many years.

Japan’s announcement

The news from Japan that it will return to commercial whaling may be unwelcome but was not completely unexpected. As well as their chequered history and disagreements with the IWC Japan also made a failed attempt to change the decision making processes of the organization earlier this year, which would have made it easier to secure votes to overturn the ban. As a result the Japanese government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced their withdrawal from the IWC on 26th December 2018. They argue that populations of certain species such as the minke whale have recovered sufficiently to allow the return of “sustainable” hunting. They have also described the IWC as “dysfunctional” and having “extremely biased views”. Their membership will expire on 30th June 2019 so they will be free to launch their commercial fleet from July onwards. They have said that their whaling will be limited to their own territorial waters and EEZ and will subsequently cease their highly contentious research expeditions to the southern oceans.

This could become a common sight in Japan next year

International condemnation

Politicians from around the world have criticised the move from Japan which is seen as out of step with the international community. UK environment secretary Michael Gove said he was “extremely disappointed” and reiterated that the UK government is strongly opposed to commercial whaling. There was also a joint statement by Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne and environment minister Melissa Price which said that “the IWC plays a crucial role in international cooperation on whale conservation” and that “Australia urges Japan to return to the Commission as a matter of priority”. Former head of the United Nations Environment Programme Erik Solheim claimed “It’s dangerous when nations break out of global agreements and start setting their own rules”.

Conservation groups have also been angered by the news which they believe is a big step back in efforts to protect whale populations. Astrid Fuchs from Whale and Dolphin Conservation described it as a “terrible decision” and said “it might spell doom for some populations”. Sam Anneslsy executive director of Greenpeace in Japan said “the government of Japan must urgently act to conserve marine ecosystems, rather than resume commercial whaling” he also criticized the timing of the move saying “It’s clear that the government is trying to sneak in this announcement at the end of year, away from the spotlight of international media, but the world sees this for what it is”.

Unpopular but not alone

Japan will not be alone in openly defying the IWC and whaling commercially. Both Norway and Iceland have acted outside of the IWC since the beginning and whale commercially in their own EEZ. The three countries have historically campaigned together against the commercial ban by the IWC with Japan attempting to lift the ban more than once. As they are outside the IWC these countries do not have to provide data on their catches meaning they are free to hunt their waters unchecked. This keeps the IWC in the dark and makes it very hard to assess global populations making protecting the whales even more difficult. One of the main fears following Japan’s announcement is summarised by Astrid Fuchs who said “we are very worried that it might set a precedent and that other countries might follow Japan’s lead and leave the commission”. South Korea in particular are rumoured to be considering a similar approach and a domino effect could make the situation much worse.

Silver lining

Not everybody believes that Japan’s announcement is necessarily as devastating as it first appears, mostly due to the end of the infamous Antarctic expeditions. One organization that is particularly happy are the Sea Shepperd Conservation Society, a group of activists known for forcibly disrupting whaling activity, who have been intervening in the Antarctic expeditions since 2002. They believe that stopping the expeditions and limiting the area Japan can operate will do more good than harm. The Sea Shepperd’s founder Captain Paul Watson stated “we are delighted to see the end of whaling in the Southern Ocean” however he went on to say “we look forward to continuing to oppose the three remaining pirate whaling nations of Norway, Japan, and Iceland”. The Australian Marine Conservation Society said the decision to halt the Antarctic hunt was “welcome and long overdue” but also argued “it would be a bittersweet victory if it comes with unchecked commercial whaling by Japan in their own waters”. The end of the expeditions will also make it easier for the IWC to establish its whale sanctuary in the area and will reduce political tensions between Australia and Japan.

Sea Shepperd’s flagship Steve Irwin patrolling Antarctic waters in 2016

Big step backwards?

Until now 2018 had been an uncommonly optimistic year for whale conservationists. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) downgraded the fin whale from endangered to threatened after it was revealed their global population had doubled in size since the 1970’s. The gray whale was also downgraded from critically endangered to endangered as it fought its way back from the brink from extinction. Other species such as the sei and minke also showed promising signs of recovery. However Japan’s decision to return to commercial whaling could jeopardise the hard work that has gone in to making this happen.

Although an end to the Antarctic expeditions may save many thousands of whales in the future the populations localized to Japan’s waters are in danger of collapsing again if not sustainably managed.  What is perhaps most worrying is the idea that this move may lead to other countries to deciding it is ok to resume whaling which could lead to more widespread damage. The situation highlights the need for international co-operation to tackle large scale environmental problems. Although the IWC has its problems it is an important organization in the fight to conserve whales and their ecosystems. By leaving Japan have not only taken matters into their own hands but have set a dangerous precedent.

Time will tell if commercial whaling in Japan is as dangerous as people fear it may be. But whether it is damaging or not with other factors such as by-catch, boat collisions, underwater noise and global warming threatening whales, commercial whaling seems like an avoidable an unnecessary risk to take.






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