CITES Censures Japan for Trading in Endangered Whale Products

sei whale and calf
sei whale and calf

Published Oct 2, 2018 6:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

Japan’s import and sale of sei whale products from its controversial “scientific” whaling program in the North Pacific has been censured as illegal by the global body entrusted with protecting endangered species from trade.

Sei whales are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means that international commercial trade in their products is banned. Japan mostly hunts sei whales on the high seas beyond its national jurisdiction. Under CITES rules, bringing these products into Japan is considered international trade, referred to under the treaty as an “introduction from the sea.” Each year, Japan hunts as many as 134 sei whales as part of its “scientific” whaling program in the North Pacific.

The sei whale is a baleen whale, the third-largest after the blue whale and the fin whale. It has a lifespan of 70 years and can reach 19.5 meters (64 feet) long and weigh as much as 28 tons.

During the 70th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Sochi, Russia, this week, committee members nearly unanimously concluded that Japan was acting in violation of the convention by landing thousands of tons of sei whale meat for primarily commercial purposes. The committee then agreed that Japan must take immediate remedial action to address this compliance issue and report on its specific actions by February 1 for consideration at the next Standing Committee meeting in May. At that time, if the committee does not accept Japan’s remediation plan, it could recommend that the other 182 governments impose trade sanctions on Japan.

For years, Japan has presented its whaling as a “scientific” endeavor in order to skirt the commercial whaling moratorium agreed to by the International Whaling Commission. But that attempted justification is irrelevant to CITES which regulates the end use of products after they are brought to Japan. The vast majority of each sei whale is packaged purely for commercial use, amounting to thousands of tons of sei whale meat from more than 1,500 sei whales in the last 16 years. However, Japan has been using CITES certificates, which should only cover the importation of limited scientific samples, to import sei whale meat and parts for the express purpose of commercial sale throughout Japan.

CITES’ censure of the commercial nature of Japan’s North Pacific sei whale hunt follows a 2014 judgment by the International Court of Justice, which found that Japan’s Antarctic whaling was not for scientific purposes. Last month, the International Whaling Commission determined that Japan’s lethal whaling was not scientifically justified and voted to defeat the country’s attempts to resume commercial whaling.

Sue Fisher, consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute, congratulated the Standing Committee on its decision: “Anything less than a firm rebuke of Japan’s longstanding and large-scale commercial exploitation of sei whales under the guise of research would have had devastating consequences, not just for the protection of endangered species from commercial interests but also for the credibility of CITES,” she said.