On this past Wednesday, December 26, Japan announced that it will be leaving the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and will publicly resume commercial whaling in July 2019. Since the banning of commercial whaling in 1986, Japan has been “scientific whaling” in the Antarctic and selling the meat after the organs are given to scientists. According to La Croix, Japan will join Iceland and Norway in publicly commercial whaling in the name of preserving their culture. While this move will take Japan out of the Antarctic where whale populations have been dwindling, it poses a renewed risk for northern Pacific species found in Japan’s waters as well as putting marine ecosystems at risk. This move has also raised tensions internationally and could potentially lead to sanctions.
An official from Japan’s foreign ministry fisheries division, Yoshie Nakatani, noted that the country would still attend IWC meetings and claims that “there is no change to our country’s respect for the rule of law and multilateralism,” according to Reuters. Many disagree with that statement, however, with organizations such as Greenpeace calling the announcement “out of step with the international community,” as well as countries including Australia and New Zealand condemning the plans. Within Japan, the Constitutional Democratic Party head Yukio Edano fears that this could lead to the country’s isolation from the rest of the world. Some also recognized the positive side of these actions, as their withdrawal from the IWC will halt their Antarctic whaling, but noted that a cease of whaling altogether would be preferable in order to help protect oceanic ecosystems, according to New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters, reported by Reuters.
In addition to the damage done to international relations, Japan’s actions will likely have a large impact on the environment as well as the global economy. To begin whaling in an area again for the first time in more than thirty years could severely disrupt the ocean’s ecosystems by quickly removing an integral part of the biosphere. It may not seem like one country could do so much damage to the environment around them, but Japan’s withdrawal could set forth movements within other pro-whaling countries such as Russia and South Korea to follow suit, according to Astrid Fuchs, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation non-profit in Great Britain, in a comment to National Geographic. Additionally, this may not be a viable move economically for Japan, as despite whale meat being sold in shops, it only accounts for 0.1 percent of Japanese meat consumption according to the Asahi newspaper. This could also result in economic sanctions on Japan, which would cause economic damage to any countries imposing them. Ultimately, it causes unnecessary damage to a number of different sectors.
Whale meat was the main source of protein in Japan in the years following World War II and was very important culturally even before that. The cultural significance is one of the main reasons that Japan has fought so hard to maintain whaling since the banning of the commercial side of the activity in 1986. They used a cover of scientific research whaling to take advantage of a loophole in the ban. According to Reuters, the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that Japan should halt its Antarctic whaling. This led to a suspension of whaling for one season to revise their practices but then continued the following year with an annual quota of 333 whales. However, National Geographic notes that Japan will no longer be able to whale in the Antarctic as a result of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas requiring its signatories to utilize “The appropriate international organizations” for marine mammal conservation.
Japan’s decision to leave the IWC is not productive for the environment nor the international community. It could lead to increased conflict ethically, environmentally, and economically. While it is important to maintain different nations’ cultures, it is also important to recognize when it is causing more harm than good, specifically with enormous amounts of negative externalities. Continuing to whale sustainably could be an option of compromise, but leaving the Commission after that option was shot down in September does not lead to any productive dialogue to remedy the situation.