In the coming weeks and months, an international argument over whale hunting may heat back up. According to The New York Times, Japan’s government has signaled that it will officially withdraw itself from an international coalition, effectively resuming the practice of commercial whaling.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said the country would leave the International Whaling Commission, which established a moratorium on hunting whales that took effect in 1986.
As the Times points out, however, it’s not like Japanese whaling had ever truly gone away. The IWC’s own ban carved out loopholes for research, giving permission for the sale of whale meat for those animals used in the research. The impact of the ban was likely then more of a suppression of the whaling industry as opposed to a more thorough closing or dismantling of it.
The international agreement never stopped Japanese whaling, because it allowed the country to continue killing whales for scientific research while selling the meat. Critics considered the research a sham, little more than a cover for commercial whaling.
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Japan did agree to make some changes to its current regulations on whale hunting. Mainly, Japan has agreed to only hunt in its own waters. The move seems to be an attempt to assuage those who worry abut the impacts of commercial whaling on protected species populations.
As part of its withdrawal from the international commission, Japan will stop its annual hunts in the Antarctic and limit whalers to its own waters. Commercial whaling will resume in July, Mr. Suga said.
The reality in Japan is that there are both economic and cultural investments in whaling. The Japanese government seems to be positioning itself in defense of those “traditions,” despite fears of over hunting and extinction.
“In its long history, Japan has used whales not only as a source of protein but also for a variety of other purposes,” Mr. Suga said in a statement. “Engagement in whaling has been supporting local communities, and thereby developed the life and culture of using whales.”
In some ways, this story reminds me of our own country’s struggles with the coal industry. Just as the popularity and necessity of coal has diminished, The Times reports the popularity and need for whale meat has waned considerably since the middle of the 20th century. The coal industry has depended on government interceding and propping it up here in America, and in Japan, the same can be said of the whaling industry. Taxpayer money, in both cases, is being used to keep an ecologically problematic practice alive.
Whale meat was once popular in Japan but is far less so now. Japanese people ate more than 233,000 tons of whale meat per year in 1962, but just 3,000 tons in 2016, according to government data. As of 2013, the industry employed fewer than 1,000 people, and in recent years it has been dependent on government subsidies.
Japan’s decision to embrace commercial whaling officially came with the cost of swift international condemnation. Officials in Australia blasted the move. They did, however, say that Japan’s decision to stop whaling in the Antarctic was worthy of praise.
“Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling,” the ministers said. “We will continue to work within the commission to uphold the global moratorium on commercial whaling.”
Surprisingly, one whaling watchdog group actually praised Japan’s decision to resume whaling.
From 2005 to 2017, Sea Shepherd, an environmentalist group, used its own ships to try to interfere with Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic. As the Japanese news media reported last week that a withdrawal from the whaling commission was being considered, Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s founder, said in a statement that he considered it good news. He said it would end Japan’s activities in the Antarctic while making Sea Shepherd’s “objective of shutting down these poachers much easier.”
What Mr. Shepherd believes is that since Japan can no longer pretend that their whaling is for scientific research purposes, it should make pursuing legal avenues of shutting it down easier on him. Whether it pans out that way, of course, remains to be seen.
“This means that Japan is now openly declaring their illegal whaling activities,” he said. “No more pretense of research whaling. With this announcement, Japan has declared themselves as a pirate whaling nation.”
It’s tragic that the Japanese government feels the need to prop up the commercial whaling industry and risk real damage to sea life populations. It’s even more tragic, though, that our own government is willing to make the same kind of mistake with coal, so in that regard it makes Japan’s decision unsurprising, unnerving as it is.