TOKYO — Japan announced Wednesday that it is withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission and will resume commercial whale hunting next year, sparking swift condemnation from other governments and conservation groups.
Tokyo argues that the IWC has failed to live up to its initial dual mandate in 1946 to find a balance between preserving whale stocks and allowing the “orderly development” of the whaling industry. After failing to reach an agreement at a global conference in Brazil in September to resume commercial whaling, Japan is now following through on a threat to withdraw from the global body entirely.
“Regrettably, we have reached a decision that it is impossible in the IWC to seek the coexistence of states with different views,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a statement.
The withdrawal will take effect at the end of June, with commercial whaling to resume in July “in line with Japan’s basic policy of promoting sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence,” Suga said.
As a result, Japan will cease taking whales from the Antarctic Ocean and Southern Hemisphere — where it has been killing whales ostensibly for scientific research — and will conduct commercial whaling “within Japan’s territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone,” he said.
Suga said the hunt would respect catch limits based on IWC calculations, “to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources.”
Australia’s government said it was “extremely disappointed” by the decision, while New Zealand said it regretted Japan’s resumption of an “outdated and unnecessary practice.”
Conservation groups also condemned the decision.
“By leaving the International Whaling Commission but continuing to kill whales commercially, Japan now becomes a pirate whaling nation killing these ocean leviathans completely outside the bounds of international law,” said Kitty Block, president of Humane Society International.
The organization also expressed concern that Japan may recruit other pro-whaling nations to leave the IWC, “leading to a new chapter of renegade slaughter of whales for profit.”
Clare Perry of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said history has demonstrated the need for global precautionary management of whale populations.
“By leaving the IWC, Japan is rejecting multilateralism and setting a very bad precedent for conservation, which will likely have very serious negative consequences for the world’s whales,” she said. “It may bring a reprieve for the whale populations currently protected in international waters, but at a very high price.”
Faced with collapsing whale stocks, the IWC agreed to a moratorium on commercial whaling from 1986, a move credited with saving several species from extinction.
But Japan, Iceland and Norway have continued to hunt whales. Japan has justified its annual Antarctic whale hunt in the name of scientific research, which it says is necessary to evaluate global populations of whale species.
That argument was rejected in 2014 by the International Court of Justice, which ruled that Japan’s Antarctic hunt had no scientific basis. Japan stopped for a year, then resumed with a new “research program” that it claimed met the court’s concerns.
In October, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species also struck a blow against Japan’s whaling industry, deciding that Japan had broken its rules by taking sei whale meat from international waters — again under the guise of research — and selling it commercially in Japan.
The ruling undermined the legality of Japan’s high-seas whaling operations and potentially removed an important source of funding through the commercial sale of sei meat, experts said. In a sense, Japan’s whaling industry has retreated to waters closer to home.
“There are a number of ways to look at this announcement,” said Erica Jayne Lyman, a professor with the International Environmental Law Project at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore. “On one hand, Japan has decided to abandon an international regime, which is lamentable. On the other hand, Japan is also recognizing that there is no fully legal path to high-seas commercial whaling, nor was there sufficient demand to make it economically viable.”
In a recent report, the EIA and the Animal Welfare Institute said Japan, Norway and Iceland have killed 38,539 whales since the moratorium took effect, with more than 22,000 killed by Japanese boats.
Wildlife groups say Japan’s “research” whaling was a thinly veiled attempt to keep the industry alive, making sure boats, skills and a market for whale meat are maintained.
Now, though, the veil has been removed.
Suga said the views of countries wanting to continue whaling in a sustainable manner “were not taken into account at all” during deliberations in Florianopolis, Brazil, in September.
“Consequently, Japan has been led to make this decision,” he said.
In September, Japan asked permission to hunt Antarctic minke whales, common minke whales, Bryde’s whales and sei whales, citing IWC population estimates in the tens of thousands for three of the species and of more than 500,000 for the Antarctic minke.
Under its research program, Japan has been killing 850 Antarctic minke a year, 220 common minke, 100 sei whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 50 fin whales and 10 sperm whales. It calculated the take to be between 0.01 and 0.88 percent of total stocks of each species.
Conservationists argue that whale stocks have not recovered sufficiently from past overhunting and are hard to assess, easy to deplete and slow to rebuild. Marine mammals also face mounting existential threats from climate change and marine pollution, including plastics, chemicals and noise.
The idea of hunting and killing whales has stirred widespread revulsion in the West, although some proponents of whale hunting point to animal cruelty in Western factory farming, leveling accusations of hypocrisy.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s constituency includes the whaling port of Shimonoseki, and he has also come under pressure from lawmakers in his Liberal Democratic Party whose electoral districts include whaling or dolphin-hunting communities.
But the damage to Japan’s international reputation could be significant.
Australian Environment Minister Melissa Price and New Zealand’s foreign minister, Winston Peters, welcomed Japan’s withdrawal from the Southern Ocean but urged it to reconsider its decision to withdraw from the IWC.
Masayuki Komatsu, who served as the chief negotiator for Japan’s Fisheries Agency from 1991 to 2005, called the decision to withdraw a “misjudgment” and said it would not necessarily stem the steady decline of Japan’s whaling industry over the past decade and a half.
Japan will lose the right to conduct scientific research under the IWC without gaining any guaranteed rights to continue whaling, he said, potentially leaving itself open to legal challenge.
“Japan’s position will become weak,” he said in an interview. “If Japan is taken to an international court, it may suffer and lose ground. If I were in a responsible government position, I wouldn’t want to take such risks. Rather, I’d stay with the IWC convention and make the best use of its obligations and duties.”
Whale meat was a vital source of protein in Japan as it recovered from the ravages of World War II but is much less popular these days. Yet the government argues that it is part of Japan’s traditional culture, dating back centuries.
Japan’s government hopes to promote the consumption of whale meat, especially among young people, an official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told reporters.
He said he hoped the decision to resume commercial whaling would increase the supply of whale meat but insisted it would not lead to “overfishing,” because Japan would observe guidelines laid down by the IWC’s Scientific Committee estimating sustainable catch limits.
“Engagement in whaling has been supporting local communities, and thereby developed the life and culture of using whales,” Suga said. “Japan hopes that more countries will share the same position to promote sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence, which will thereby be handed down to future generations.”