Japan Leaves International Whaling Commission: What Next?

Credit: Sea Shepherd
Credit: Sea Shepherd

Published Dec 26, 2018 4:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

Following media speculation last week, the Government of Japan has confirmed that it is leaving the International Whaling Commission (IWC). It will cease whaling in the Southern Ocean but continue with commercial whaling in its coastal waters, joining Norway and Iceland as whaling nations in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic.

By walking out of the IWC, Japan is leaving the international body for whale conservation and the management of whaling. The IWC was the first international body to try to ensure the sustainable use of living species. Efforts to manage whaling failed and populations continued to crash until a moratorium was agreed in 1982, coming into force in 1986.

At the last meeting of the IWC, in Brazil in September, Japan brought forward a series of linked-proposals that would have undermined the moratorium. The proposals were voted down. Japan reacted angrily and threatened to leave the IWC. The fact that it did not do it at that time may be a reflection of other important international negotiations underway such as its new trade deal with the U.S. 

Japan has commited to continue to cooperate with the IWC as an observer. 

Japan is the biggest financial contributor to the work of the IWC, which is predominantly funded by the membership fees of its member nations. So, Japan's departure will probably create some budgetary issues, but the IWC has 88 other members, so it is unlikely to cause the IWC to fail.  

Many ex-whaling nations including the U.S., U.K., Australia and Argentina are member nations of the IWC as are the other nations that continue to whale for profit – Norway and Iceland.

Japan has long categorized its whaling activity as scientific research, using a clause in the IWC founding treaty (Article VIII), which allows IWC member nations to kill whales for research (a lethal approach superseded by modern non-lethal techniques). The legitimacy of Japan's use of the scientific whaling clause was recently been tested in the International Court of Justice, in a case brought by Australia about Japan's Antarctic whaling. This multinational court found against Japan in its 2014 verdict, and it was ordered to desist.

Japan stopped whaling in the Southern Ocean for one season but then returned with what it categorized as a brand-new research program claiming it met the court's concerns.

The import of meat from Japan's North Pacific sei whale hunt was recently found to be in contravention of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and Japan was instructed to explain in the New Year how it means to address this.

Humane Society International is concerned that Japan may recruit other pro-whaling nations to leave the IWC, leading to a new chapter of renegade slaughter of whales for profit. Kitty Block, President of Humane Society International says, "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. For decades Japan has aggressively pursued a well-funded whaling campaign to upend the global ban on commercial whaling. It has consistently failed, but instead of accepting that most nations no longer want to hunt whales, it has now simply walked out."

Sea Shepherd has welcomed the end of Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. Since 2002, Sea Shepherd has opposed Japanese whaling operations in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary with expeditions to Antarctic waters first in 2002 followed by continuous campaigns from 2005 until 2017. During this period over 6,000 whales were saved, says Sea Shepherd.

In 2017, the Japanese government began to invest millions of dollars in security efforts to prevent Sea Shepherd from engaging their fleets. These security measures included military grade real time surveillance. Although this prevented Sea Shepherd from returning to the Southern Ocean in 2018, it also placed Japan in a position of expending huge resources on continuous security. 

Sea Shepherd believes that the IWC will now be able to pass a motion to establish the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary thus effectively ending whaling in the Southern Hemisphere. Captain Paul Watson issued a statement saying, “Whaling as a ‘legal’ industry has ended. All that remains is to mop up the pirates.”

Australia's minister for foreign affairs, Marise Payne, and minister for the environment, Melissa Price, have released a joint statement saying that the Australian Government is extremely disappointed with Japan's decision. "The International Whaling Commission plays a crucial role in international cooperation on whale conservation. The Commission is the pre-eminent global body responsible for the conservation and management of whales and leads international efforts to tackle the growing range of threats to whales globally, including by-catch, ship strikes, entanglement, noise and whaling. Their decision to withdraw is regrettable, and Australia urges Japan to return to the Convention and Commission as a matter of priority."

Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called "scientific" whaling.