In a move that has sparked concern among conservationists, Japan has announced that it will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial whaling operations this summer.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said that Japan will restrict its whaling efforts to Japanese territorial and economic zones, meaning that it will end its annual hunts in the Antarctic, reports Daniel Victor of the New York Times. Commercial hunts are due to begin in July, per Suga.
According to the BBC, the Japanese government has accused IWC of focusing too heavily on conserving whale numbers, while neglecting to develop sustainable whaling practices, which is one of the global intergovernmental body’s stated goals.
The IWC, which was established under the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, issued a broad moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, in an effort to restore whale populations that had been drastically depleted by overhunting. The ban was expected to be temporary, until the commission determined sustainable hunting quotas, but it has remained in place to the present day.
At a September meeting of the IWC in Brazil, Japan attempted to establish a number of measures that would allow the commercial hunting of “abundant whale stocks/species”; as the BBC reports, Japan primarily kills minke whales, which are protected by the IWC but not currently endangered. Members of the commission, however, voted down Japan’s proposal by 41 to 27.
“[The proposal] could have erased a generation of conservation measures and restrictions on whale hunting,” Patrick Ramage, a director of marine conservation for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told Al Jazeera at the time. At the September meeting, the IWC also passed a non-binding “Florianopolis Declaration,” which asserts that whaling is no longer an economic necessity.
Suga said that Japan's pro-whaling views were “not taken into account at all," according to the Washington Post’s Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi. “Consequently, Japan has been led to make this decision.”
The IWC moratorium had not previously stopped Japan or other pro-whaling nations from killing the marine mammals. A recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Animal Welfare Institute found that Iceland, Norway and Japan have killed 38,539 whales since 1986. Japan operated under a “scientific” whaling program, which enabled the country to exploit a loophole in international regulations that allow certain quotas of whales to be killed for research. Japan permitted whale meat from these expeditions to be sold in markets and restaurants, and critics—including the U.N’s International Court of Justice—have decried the scientific program as a thinly veiled cover for commercial hunts.
With Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC, there is no mistaking the country’s determination to hunt whales on a commercial basis. The government maintains that whale hunting is an important part of Japanese culture, and supporters of the practice have accused western detractors of “cultural imperialism.” But while whale meat was a vital food source in Japan as the country struggled to recover from the devastation of WWII, it is rarely eaten today. A 2013 survey found that whale consumption in Japan was at just one percent of its peak in the 1960s, and stockpiles of unsold whale meat had reached 5,000 tons.
There are those who see Japan’s exit from the IWC has a positive development. For one, although the country will continue to hunt whales in the North Pacific, it is withdrawing from the Antarctic, where it had been flagrantly hunting in protected waters. According to Paul Watson, founder of the environmentalist group Sea Shepherd, the new developments also put an end to Japan’s “pretense of research whaling.”
“Japan has declared [itself] as a pirate whaling nation,” Watson writes. “This will make Sea Shepherd’s objective of shutting down these poachers much easier.”
But conservationists worry that Japan’s actions threaten whale populations within Japan’s territorial waters. Additionally, there are concerns that Japan’s departure from the IWC may embolden other pro-whaling countries to also leave the IWC. Humane Society International said it fears that such action will open the door for “a new chapter of widespread renegade slaughter of whales for profit.”