TOKYO—Japan’s 26 December 2018 announcement that it will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial whaling in its own waters triggered fierce criticism around the world. U.K. environment secretary Michael Gove was “extremely disappointed.” Greenpeace called the decision “out of step with the international community” and its timing in the middle of the holiday season “sneaky.”
But some conservationists say the hand wringers are missing the point. What matters most is that Japan has decided “to stop large-scale whaling” on the high seas under the mantle of scientific research, says Justin Cooke, a marine population assessment specialist at the Center for Ecosystem Management Studies in Emmendingen, Germany. Given the declining appetite for whale meat, Japan is unlikely to start to catch many more whales in its own waters than it already does, he adds: “There won’t be much change on the ground.”
Patrick Ramage, a whaling specialist at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, agrees. “It’s good news for whales,” he says—and also for IWC, which can finally end its “food fights over whaling” and focus on other issues in whale conservation.
Japan has never hidden its hope of resuming commercial whaling, banned under an IWC moratorium since 1986. In the meantime, it has used a clause in the IWC treaty that allows members to capture whales for scientific purposes—and sell the meat. The Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) here has primarily harvested minke whales, with minor catches of sei whales, Bryde’s whales, and a few other species. Japanese scientists claimed whale autopsies were essential to determine the animals’ diet and age, among other things, but critics dismissed the research as a fig leaf for commercial whaling and said it produced few meaningful data.
In March 2014, the International Court of Justice sided with the critics in a suit brought by Australia, ordering Japan to halt its Antarctic whaling research. (The case did not address Japan’s North Pacific research programs.) Japan canceled its Antarctic research cruises for a year, then resumed them under new programs it deemed compliant with the court’s ruling.
But at IWC’s biannual meeting in September 2018 in Brazil, Japan also proposed a fresh plan to resume commercial whaling, which it said can be done in a sustainable way. IWC concedes that the current population of several hundred thousand minke whales in the Antarctic is “clearly not endangered.” But the fight is no longer just about sustainability; whaling opponents say the bloody hunt for the majestic mammals is simply inhumane. IWC rejected the Japanese proposal, and the meeting adopted a resolution emphasizing that IWC’s purpose is to ensure the recovery of cetacean populations to preindustrial levels and reaffirming the moratorium on commercial whaling. That one-two punch triggered Japan’s December announcement.
Although Japan will now abandon its scientific whaling programs, what will happen to ICR, which has a $68 million annual budget, is unclear. “It’s likely to have some role as a research institute contributing to cetacean science, though its magnitude may not be so significant,” says Masayuki Komatsu, a former delegate to IWC now at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.
Meanwhile, Japan’s whaling efforts will shift to its own coastal waters and the 320-kilometer exclusive economic zone around them. Whether whales there will now be at risk is a subject of debate. The Northern Hemisphere minke population as a whole “is not threatened,” says Cooke, but waters near the Koreas and Japan are home to an “unusual and possibly unique” population, called the J-stock, that breeds in the summer instead of the winter, he says.
Japanese fishers already catch about 100 minke whales each year in these waters, Komatsu says. (Rather than the traditional harpoons, they use nets, which is allowed under the IWC moratorium.) But increasing the harvest with harpoon whaling could put pressure on the J-stock. Japan’s December announcement said catch limits will be set “to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources” but provided no details.
Market forces may settle the issue. Joji Morishita, a fisheries expert at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology who finished a 2-year stint as IWC chair in September 2018, believes whaling remains a “viable” business. Others are doubtful. Shifting consumer tastes and a growing environmental awareness have already led to a steep decline in Japanese whale meat consumption, from 203,000 tons in 1965 to just 4000 tons in 2015. Three major fishing companies appear to have no interest in commercial whaling. Cooke suspects Japan will go the way of Norway, where “a niche operation is feeding a niche market but with decreasing interest in the market and decreasing interest in going whaling.”
Although Japan intends to continue to participate in IWC as an observer, it will no longer contribute to the group’s budget. (In 2017, it provided about 6% of IWC’s $2.7 million total income.) The upside is that, with Japan gone, IWC can spend more time on other threats to whales, including ship strikes, bycatches, habitat loss, and what Ramage calls the “existential question” for whales’ future: the effects of climate change.