Japanese commercial whaling to resume in July

After a 30-year break, Japan will resume commercial whaling in July. 

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced on 26 December, 2018, the country would withdraw from the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). The announcement was timed to meet a six-month notification requirement. 

By beating a 1 January deadline for notifying the U.S. State Department – which in turn notified the convention’s governing body, the International Whaling Commission (ICW) – Japan is able to resume whaling this July. 

The relevant text comes from Article 11 of the convention, stipulating the timing for any country withdrawing from the ICRW. 

“Any Contracting Government may withdraw from this Convention on 30th June, of any year by giving  notice on  or before  1 January,  of the same year to the depository government [the USA],  which upon receipt of such a notice shall at once communicate it to the other contracting governments,” it states.

The move was taken in frustration with the IWC, which has abandoned its originally-stated purpose of scientific management of the whale stock as a harvestable resource, according to Japan.

“Recognizing that the whale stocks are susceptible of natural increases if whaling is properly  regulated, and that increases in the size of whale stocks will permit increases in the number of whales which may be captured without endangering these natural resources,” the convention states.

The convention goes on to classify whale stocks according to maximum sustainable yield (MSY), stock levels and to permit hunting of whales with adequate stocks.

To allow stocks to recover, a moratorium was imposed on all commercial whaling from 1986, with the effects to be reviewed by 1990 at the latest. 

“Catch limits for the killing for commercial purposes of whales from all stocks for the 1986 coastal and the 1985/86 pelagic seasons and thereafter shall be zero,” the convention states. “This provision will be kept under review, based upon the best scientific advice, and by 1990 at the latest the commission will undertake a comprehensive assessment of the effects of this decision on whale stocks and consider modification of this provision and the establishment of other catch limits." 

Since 1992, the IWC's Scientific Committee has requested that it be allowed to give quota proposals for some whale stocks, but this has so far been refused by the Plenary Committee, which is dominated by anti-whaling countries. Iceland subsequently left the ICW for this reason.

Several governments – Japan, Norway, Peru, and what was then the U.S.S.R. – lodged objections to the 1986 moratorium that allowed them to continue commercial whaling. Some later withdrew their reservations, but Norway continues commercial whaling under this objection. Japan withdrew its objection, but continued whaling under a scientific whaling exception. 

As the ICW has consistently refused to consider a resumption of commercial whaling based on scientific estimates of sustainability, Japan has finally quit the organization. It will continue as an “observer” in order to meet a requirement that commercial whaling be coordinated with the ICW.

While Japan’s whaling efforts were formerly focused on Antarctica and the North Pacific, it will now hunt within its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ), focusing on abundant species such as minke whales. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species shows minke whales under “least concern.” 

Japan has in the past also hunted Bryde’s whales and sei whales. Bryde’s whales are shown as also “least concern.” The sei whale, a species that is shown as “endangered,” but increasing, was the subject of an International Court of Justice ruling in 2018 that bringing the meat of sei whales harvested in other areas to Japan for sale was an illegal importation and a violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), commonly known as the Washington Convention. 

Inability to market the meat would have made Japan’s scientific programs in Antarctica and the North Pacific financially burdensome to continue. It may thus have contributed to the decision to stop these programs in favor of a domestic commercial program. 

The shift to commercial whaling is not without problems for the Japanese industry. While much data has been accumulated over the years on whales in Antarctic waters, there is a paucity of data for Japan’s own EEZ. Whalers do not know where or how many whales they can expect to find. 

Also, the government has been subsidizing the annual Antarctic scientific hunt, with meat sales considered as a byproduct. Now, whalers will have to market their product at a profit to a public that has largely grown up without eating whale meat. Consumption in recent years is only 3,000 to 5,000 metric tons per year. 

Promotions to attract new buyers are already planned. Surprisingly, whale meat is proving popular among foreign visitors to Japan, who like the novelty, even those from nations that oppose whaling.

The Fisheries Agency's whaling budget has been JPY 5.1 billion (USD 46.6 million, EUR 41.6 million). The government will continue to cover survey costs to explore the new fishing grounds, but in the future, the industry will be expected to operate without subsidy.

It is also worth noting that while conservationists will be pointing a finger at Japan, other nations continue whaling under exemptions for indigenous peoples, commercially, or for science. In 2017, according to ICW data, Japan took 333 minke whales in Antarctic waters and 44 in the Northwest Pacific; The U.S.A. took 58 bow-head and 1 gray; Russia took 119 gray and one bowhead; South Korea took two minke; St. Vincent and the Grenadines took one humpback; Norway took 432 minke; Iceland took 17 minke; Greenland (a Danish territory) took eight fin whales and 143 minke; and Canada took one bow-head.

This data does not include harvests of smaller whales and dolphins, such as the pilot whale catch in the Faroe Islands or the harvests of narwhal and beluga in many countries, fishing bycatch in South Korea, or Indonesia’s catch of sperm whales. 

From 2010 to 2014, Canada took 1,626 belugas and 2,869 narwhals; Greenland took 1,316 and 1,679 respectively, the U.S.A. took 1,586 belugas; Russia took 303 belugas; South Korean nets entangled 368 minke, 1 pilot whale, 1 fin whale, 2 Bryde’s whales, 2 humpbacks, and 2 orcas; and Indonesia took 100 sperm whales.

U.S. subsistence whaling is governed by the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee (belugas), Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (bowhead), and the Makah tribe of Washington State (gray whales).

In addition to whaling and fishing net entanglement, ship collisions are a significant cause of whale mortality. The North Atlantic right whale, whose main habitat is the busy shipping lanes off the east coast of the U.S.A. and Canada, and the fin whale in the Mediterranean are the most affected.

Photo courtesy of Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.


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