Saving the whales – this time, from Japan

From ToxicLeaks

Japan withdraws from whale treaty[edit | edit source]

The January 2019 announcement from Japan that it is withdrawing from the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to resume commercial whaling was met with wide protest, and it’s important to understand the context in which Japan is acting unilaterally against global climate and biodiversity goals. The Japanese have economic and cultural ties to the whaling industry that span centuries, possibly dating to the country’s earliest known prehistory during the Jōmon period. Large-scale commercial whaling began in the 17th century and lasted until a global moratorium in 1982.


Japan opposed that moratorium, but agreed under pressure in 1985 and two years later shifted to “special permit whaling” for research purposes. Marine and wildlife advocacy organizations have long complained that the practice is a pretense for Japan to continue commercial whaling, and the 2019 fiscal budget includes $46.2 million in government funds to support whaling through its Fisheries Agency.


Japan also objected to the 1994 designation of the Antarctic as a Southern Ocean Sanctuary for whales, and in 2014 the International Court of Justice found its JARPA “scientific” program in violation of both the Southern Ocean protections and the international ban on commercial whaling and factory ships. These large vessels, akin to whalers, have on-board capacity for catching, processing and freezing fish. A 1979 ban on factory ships was met with anger by Japanese officials, who claimed it was discriminatory.

The historic fight to save whales[edit | edit source]

If the Japanese have long opposed whale protections – along with a handful of whaling-industry nations such as Russia and Norway – the rest of the world has valued whale species and populations. Whales, dolphins and porpoises belong to the  Cetacean group, and there are more than 80 species of them. The global whale protections saved species that were on the brink of extinction because of overfishing, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) still lists some as endangered. They include the majestic blue whale, earth’s largest mammal, with global populations between 5,000 and 15,000.


Other endangered species on the IUCN list include Sei whales, the western Gray whales, and the critically endangered Antarctic blue whale. In many but not all cases, whale populations continue to recover because of the global ban that Japan will no longer honor in its territories beginning July 2019.

Global outcry over Japanese whaling[edit | edit source]

The International Whaling Commission (IWC), which was set up in 1946 as part of the original global whaling conventions, said it acknowledged Japan’s intent to withdraw on January 14, 2019, after Tokyo formalized plans that had been in process for months. Andrej Bibic of Slovenia, the current IWC chair, said the commission will “need to consider the implications of the Government of Japan’s withdrawal.”


Others have been less diplomatic. Analysts view the decision to leave the IWC agreement as politically inspired, and meant to shore up the approval of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government by returning rural communities to their traditional economic opportunities as well as pandering to cultural pride. Japan has fiercely rejected that view, even as the global community has aligned in anger and protest.


The government of Australia, long opposed to Japanese whaling, said it was “extremely disappointed.” The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) called Japan’s “rogue whaling” a regrettable decision; Greenpeace condemned a reversal of environmental values and said Japan was out of step with the global community and its conservation commitments. Celebrities and leading experts, including Jane Goodall and Ricky Gervais, participated in protests and signed letters to Abe pleading for the whales.


Tokyo’s decision to forge ahead with commercial whaling makes little sense from either an economic or environmental viewpoint. For example, Japan’s market for whale meat is a paltry 3,000 to 5,000 tons in annual consumption – a fraction of the more than 200,000 tons at the height of commercial whaling. Yet the government is already promoting whale meat during children’s school lectures and lunch programs.

Commercial whaling and global warming[edit | edit source]

Japan argues that the world’s whale populations have recovered enough to reinstitute whaling within its own economic exclusion zones. Abe’s government insists that it will not affect international waters, and will not reach the scale seen in the past – a scale that nearly wiped out whale species. Others disagree.


One compelling argument against the Japanese position is the harm climate change is bringing to whale populations. For example, Japan currently fishes the minke whale, which is not considered endangered by IUCN, but the WWF foresees climate pressures on the population. A rise of 2°C in global warming means Antarctic minke will lose up to 30 percent of the sea ice and feed stock it depends on for survival. Critical whale habitats will keep pushing southward, making the journey longer for humpback and blue whales that feed in the Antarctic, creating potential health stressors while shrinking the habitat zones.


Arctic whales, and those migrating to northern waters, face similar constraints. Killer whales are not listed as endangered by IUCN either – there’s limited data for making the determination – but scientists find that North Sea and Pacific Arctic killer whales are already pushing father north to feed. The warming affects the entire ecosystem, including the krill and other food whales seek, at the same time that ocean  acidification, plastic pollution and other environmental risks threaten marine biodiversity. Japan has no meaningful rationale to begin hunting whales again: There’s no real value to gain and everything to lose.