Announced last December, this move is not as drastic as it sounds: It merely confines the Japanese hunt to domestic waters. Previously, Tokyo exploited a loophole in the moratorium on whaling adopted by the IWC in 1986, claiming its whaling in international waters was for scientific research. The withdrawal will put an end to annual hunts in the Antarctic Ocean, which took the lives of more than 500 whales in the 2017 and 2018 hunting season, according to CNN.
Still, the official resumption of commercial whaling is both counterproductive and unnecessary — especially given Japan’s increasingly lukewarm attitude toward whale meat. National annual consumption has plummeted from a 223,000-ton high in 1962 to about 5,000 tons in recent years. While whaling has become a nationalist symbol, it might not be so integral to the Japanese identity anymore.
At best, the new policy might be Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s graceful maneuver out of an economic drain. While he has yet to announce his plan, without government subsidies the costly whaling industry is not expected to survive. In 2019, the Fisheries Agency allocated the equivalent of $463 million to support the whaling industry, but as local taste buds change and labor costs rise, this becomes an increasingly poor investment.
Japan’s departure from the IWC, meanwhile, sets a potentially dangerous precedent — especially for the commission’s pro-whaling members. Protection of whales, like that of other highly migratory species, knows no national borders. While there has not been any indication that other nations will follow suit, no government should be walking away from multilateral agreements that require a global effort to be effective.
If it is to continue whaling in any form, Japan should adopt a more sustainable approach. Last year, Mr. Abe’s government was criticized for decimating the already endangered sei whale population. It should ban catches of those whales and do more to mitigate the unpredictable impacts of the ongoing hunt, including the entanglement of other marine animals in hunting gear, the shifting feeding patterns caused by whale deaths and changes to whale migratory routes. The continuation of this practice need not add any more names to endangered species lists.