Animal Law

The International Whaling Commission Sans Japan: What it Means for the Whales

Allie Jo Mitchell, MJLST Staffer

On December 25, 2018 Japan announced that it would withdraw from the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (“ICRW”) and leave the international whaling commission (“IWC”) in order to resume commercial whaling.  A statement by Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary explained that the decision to withdraw was based on the failure of the IWC to take into account all stated objectives of the ICRW, including the “orderly development of the whaling industry” and the creation of sustainable commercial whaling. Citing the cultural and economic significance commercial fishing has played in Japan, the country rested its decision on its determination that commercial whaling could resume without negatively impacting cetacean resources.

International condemnation over Japan’s decision was swift, with Greenpeace Japan questioning the health of Japan’s whaling stock and calling the decision “out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures.” The UK’s environment secretary tweeted that “[t]he UK is strongly opposed to commercial whaling and will continue to fight for the protection and welfare of these majestic mammals” and a diplomat of Norway called the decision to break away from the global agreement “dangerous.” On January 14, 2019 the IWC issued a statement that it had received notification from Japan that it would withdraw from the ICRW in 2019.  Recognizing the role Japan had played, the chair of the IWC specifically mentioned the controversy surrounding commercial whaling within its member group, offering hope that the IWC would continue to work on a variety of issues in which there was common ground.  

Now that Japan has left the IWC, it will begin the commercial hunting of whales in July of 2019 within its territorial seas and exclusive economic zone that exists within 200 miles of Japan’s coasts. Japan will also remain an observer of the IWC and “continue to contribute to the science-based sustainable management of resources.” Importantly, without it’s permit to kill whales for research under the ICW, Japan will now cease the taking of whales in the high sea, including the Antarctic Ocean and the Southern Hemisphere, as required by international law. Japan had previously killed whales in the Antarctic Ocean under the auspicious guise of research. In fact, in 2014 the International Court of Justice found that Japan’s whale research program was violating the IWC’s moratorium on commercial whaling because Japan was using lethal methods where none were required. Despite this holding, in 2016 a Japanese “research” expedition in the Antarctic killed 333 whales (207 of which were pregnant) with the meat from the whales sold on the commercial market.

But what does all this really mean for the whales of the world? There are some positives that may come from Japan withdrawing from the IWC, but these could easily be outweighed by the negatives. Because Japan will have to limit its commercial whaling to 200 miles within Japanese coasts, whales outside of this region, particularly whales in the Antarctic and southern hemisphere, will be in luck. However, whales within Japan’s territorial sea and economic zone, where studies suggest stock levels are low, won’t fare so well.

Furthermore, Japan may not only shift its catch to Japanese waters but could actually increase the number of whales it kills each year with little to no oversight from the international community. This could severely impact whale species, both endangered and non-threatened, and deplete whale stocks within Japan’s territorial sea. As Astrid Fuchs, program lead of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation explained, “[t]he oversight that the IWC was having over Japan’s whaling will now be lost. We won’t know how many whales they are catching, we won’t know how they will report it. It might spell doom for some populations.”

Perhaps the greater danger lies in what Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC may signal to other countries. As Japan stated in its public announcement, “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.” Fuchs is worried about the precedent this might set, particularly in countries with an interest in commercial whaling and whale meat including South Korea and other Pacific and Caribbean island nation states.

On the bright side, decreasing interest and consumption of whale meat may play a bigger role in protecting whales from commercial hunting than Japan’s involvement with the IWC. Demand for whale meat is the lowest in Japan since WWII, with the average consumption of whale just one ounce per person a year. A recent poll also showed that only 11% of Japanese people strongly support the whaling industry. If the economics of commercial whaling are not as strong as imagined, commercial whaling my peter out on its own in Japan.

The world will likely have to wait and see what the real effect of Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC is on the health and vitality of whale species and whale stocks. In the meantime, there are a myriad of other human caused dangers to whales from bycatch, plastic pollution, noise pollution, oil & chemical pollution, marine traffic, and climate change. Humans have a history of driving whale species to extinction, wreaking havoc on whaling stocks, and threatening the very survival of whales for their personal use and consumption. Despite Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC, it will be necessary for all nations to look beyond commercial whaling and address the continual threats humans pose to whales and other marine life.