Japan starts fourth commercial whaling season since leaving IWC

Published on
April 7, 2022

Two whaling vessels departed Ayukawa Port in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, on 3 April – the first vessels to depart for the start of Japan’s 2022 commercial whaling season, which runs from 1 April to the end of the year.

The No. 8 Koei Maru and No. 3 Daikatsu Maru are small “catcher” vessels with a raised sighting platform and a harpoon gun mounted on the bow, operated by Ayukawa Whale Co., which also operates a physical shop and an online shop selling canned whale meat and whale bacon. Both vessels will target minke whales.

The minke whale is small compared with the two other target species, the Bryde's whale and sei whale. Those species will be targeted by larger “mother ships,” with ramps at the stern to haul in the carcass for processing. This year’s total allowable catch (TAC) is 137 minke, 187 Bryde's, and 25 sei whales. The quotas for the former two species are set taking account of the five-year average of bycatch in fixed fishing nets.

This is the fourth year that Japan will hunt whales commercially after leaving the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Th IWC’s original purpose since its creation in 1946 is to rebuild stocks so that whaling could be managed responsibly, as shown by an excerpt from the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling: “having decided to conclude a convention to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.”

However, IWC member countries with strong anti-whaling sentiment have blocked a resumption of whaling – even for stocks with adequate numbers – according to Japan.  The country’s stance is the function of the IWC today is to eliminate the whaling industry – excepting allocations for subsistence whaling by aboriginal groups.

Japan skirted the ban on commercial whaling for many years by operating a “scientific whaling” program in Antarctic waters and in the North Pacific. Japan’s scientific whaling was harassed and attacked by Sea Shepherd activists, and was ultimately ended when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Japan’s scientific whaling programs did not qualify as “scientific.” In addition to the ruling, the Convention on the International Treaty for Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) warned Japan that transporting endangered sei whales from Antarctic waters to Japan for commercial sale constituted international trade in an endangered species.

After leaving the IWC, Japan resumed commercial whaling in 2019 in its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Japan continues scientific work in Antarctic waters, but this now consists of non-lethal visual surveys to estimate abundance and stock structure.

Japan also continues to hunt small cetaceans like dolphins and pilot whales in its own waters, as do other nations, including indigeneous groups in the U.S. and Canada, which hunt belugas and narwhals; and the Faroe Islands, which takes pilot whales. The IWC website says that small cetaceans are not considered to be among the “great whales.” While the IWC facilitates and funds small cetacean research and conservation programs, it does not regulate hunting of small cetaceans.  

Photo courtesy of Ayukawa Whale Co.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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