Whaling ships in Japan resumed commercial whaling efforts Monday after more than 30 years of participation in the international community’s efforts to curb the practice. Whaling vessels received permits from the fishing ministries to catch 227 Minke, Bryde’s, and Sei whales the next year (the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists the Sei whale as endangered). Japan also left the International Whaling Commission (IWC) on Sunday, an international organization of which Japan has been a member since 1951. The decision signaled a formal departure from decades of international cooperation to try and conserve whales in the wild. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the departure from the IWC in December, citing the commission’s unfulfilled mandate to balance whale preservation and sustainable whale fishing. In 1986, the international organization placed a moratorium on commercial whale hunting. Last year, Japan was given a catch quota of 333 whales under an exemption for the commission’s scientific research program. Whales caught under the research guidelines eventually make it to market for consumption, raising questions about the true purposes of the practice.
At a departure ceremony for the latest commercial whaling vessels, Japan’s head of fishing ministries, Shigeto Hase, said, “The resumption of commercial whaling has been an ardent wish for whalers around the country.” Praise also came from Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association, among others. Environmental and animal protection activists met the policy change with disappointment and frustration. Sam Annesley, Executive Director at Greenpeace Japan, said in a statement that Japan “is out of step with the international community.” Juliet Phillips, advocating on behalf of the Environmental Investigation Agency, told reporters after she witnessed the first catch last week, “Today, we bore witness to the first victim of Japan’s new era of commercial whaling; with the sad, slinked carcass of a Minke whale brought to shore.”
At the heart of the policy tension is the question of whether commercial whaling can ever be sustainable. While Japan caught between 200 and 1200 whales annually under an exemption labeled as for scientific research, the IWC declared in 2014 there was no scientific basis for the practice. The Humane Society International (HSI) also refused to defend supposed the scientific purposes of the practice, noting there was no humane method to kill a whale. Moreover, whales breed slowly, have relatively small population numbers, and live long lives – all reasons the HSI found whales “extremely vulnerable” to over-exploitation. Even so, Junko Sakuma, an industry expert at Rikkyo University, remarked on the situation’s uncertainty: “For the time being, coastal whaling isn’t a problem as long as it’s done precisely. We’ll have to wait and see if that’s the case.”
Less obvious but highly relevant are the economic and demographic conditions under which commercial whaling has made a comeback in Japan, and whether these conditions foster – or threaten – whaling as a long-term industry. Demand for whale meat declined dramatically even before the 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling; government consumption data shows that consumption decreased from about 200,000 tons in the 1960s to around 5,000 tons in recent years. Whale meat is more popular with the older Japanese generation, its demand having peaked in 1962. Japan’s contemporary aging population and lower-than-replacement birthrate mean commercial whalers are having more trouble hiring employees. Commercial whalers must also compete with wages from more profitable fisheries, not to mention other industries. These factors suggest that the commercial nature of whaling may not survive in Japan’s modern economy.
Even so, cultural and historical factors are at play. The practice enjoys support in opinion polls despite low demand for the meat. Hisayo Takada, spokeswoman for Greenpeace Japan, said the practice is a “sensitive, nationalistic topic […] It’s not about whaling itself. It’s more about Japanese pride and standing up for what people see as their culture.”
The choice by the Japanese government to withdraw from the IWC and its decision to resume commercial whaling will likely put whales – and especially threatened and endangered whale species – at further risk. But these decisions are at the center of a highly complex and, in many ways, unpredictable context. Rather than further alienating Japan, the international community would benefit from continued conversation and negotiation to try and curb the conservational and environmental threat that commercial whaling presents. The decisions of governmental institutions and advocacy organizations are critical. While organizations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have chosen to focus their litigation efforts elsewhere, there is still value in working with Japan to reduce quotas or limit commercial whaling in an increasingly dynamic economy.