Commercial whaling in Japan: what is the impact?

Image credit: pixabay

On the 30th of June 2019, Japan left the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the global body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling. Therefore, since July 2019, Japan has resumed commercial whaling within its waters. Due to the recent release of the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy shining a light upon commercial fishing and the destruction of ocean life, the whaling industry has been propelled into more extreme media attention. Therefore, it’s increasingly important to investigate the impact of this move to commercial whaling in Japan.

Prior to leaving the IWC, Japan was tied to agreements that ensured a ban on all commercial whaling since the moratorium in 1986. This was put in place to negate the devastating decline of the global whale species. With Japan leaving the IWC and resuming commercial whaling in its coastal waters, threats to whale populations have re-emerged. However, since the moratorium took effect, a report by the EIA and the Animal Welfare Institute claims Japanese boats killed 22,000 whales whilst being a member of the IWC.

So, why was Japan allowed to continue to hunt whales regardless of the ban? And equally, will Japan’s withdrawal have a negative impact on the declining whale population?

The IWC states that two forms of whaling may still occur: aboriginal subsistence and special permit whaling. The latter requires countries to submit research proposals to the IWC, whose role is advisory, and the country may then resume whaling under scientific grounds. Up until Japan left the IWC, the country claimed the whales they hunted were all for scientific research with reasons such as investigating the stock structure and calculating commercial catch limits. However, Japan still allowed the sale of whale products despite the claim that they were whaling purely for scientific research. This came under scrutiny in 2014 when a Japanese fleet killed 333 whales claiming this was for scientific research, the United Nations International Court of Justice concluded this was unjustifiable.

Despite being able to hunt whales under the premise of scientific research within the IWC, the Japanese government claimed there were insurmountable rifts between Japan and countries opposed to commercial whaling. Japan has continuously been pro-whaling with a surge following WW2 when Government policy encouraged the growth of the fishing industry to alleviate food shortages.

The decision for Japan to leave the IWC was criticised widely, with the Oceans Campaigns Leader Clare Perry suggesting the decision was “deeply regrettable” and that “time and again, it’s claim to be whaling for scientific and not commercial purposes has been exposed as a fraud and yet rather than concede defeat in the face of the vast majority of world opinion it has chosen to risk becoming an international pariah on this issue.”

However, by leaving the IWC Japan can now resume commercial whaling but only in its own coastal waters. Therefore, Japan must halt whaling on the high seas as it can no longer take advantage of the scientific whaling exemption in international waters. This drastically reduces the area in which Japanese fleets can resume commercial whaling. Therefore, will this withdrawal increase the number of whales hunted significantly or not?

By reducing the area that Japanese fleets can hunt whales, this targets specific species and will negatively impact those, whilst other species whose habitat is not in Japan’s coastal waters will benefit.

A report by the National Geographic suggests the whales in Antarctica will benefit from this withdrawal significantly as Japanese fleets previously have killed 300+ whales in one year alone (2016) and with Japan now unable to hunt whales for scientific purposes in international waters it is believed the number of these whales will rise. In contrast, minke whales found off the coast of Japan are now more likely to be threatened and concerns have arisen over this.

Although specific species are at greater risk, will the total number of whales killed increase?

Currently, reports have shown that the commercial whaling industry in Japan has taken a hit partly due to Covid-19. In June 2020 prices plunged to half their usual for whale meat, blamed on Covid restrictions to dining out, and the government is relying upon subsidies to support the industry. Equally, there has been a lack of interest in Japan for whale meat consumption, which now only makes up 2% of all meat consumed in Japan. This has led to 3,500 supermarkets within the country stopping the sale of whale and dolphin products. This may have been influenced by the reports of whale and dolphin meat containing dangerously high levels of toxic pollutants. The EIA led a report which linked the mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls present in whale meat to adverse health effects in adults and impaired pre/postnatal development. The Japanese Consumer Cooperative Union has criticised the Japanese Government for viewing the effect of mercury within whale meat too lightly.

With the demand for whale meat declining and the industry itself suffering, Japan has surprisingly responded by pouring in more money. In fiscal 2020, the Japanese government financed the search of whaling grounds and the development of whaling technologies with ¥5.1billion. The Liberal Democratic Party approved a bill recently to provide state support for promoting technologies related to hunting whales and the deployment of ships to stop the obstruction by foreign anti-whaling organisations. It seems the government still refuses to stop commercial whaling.

Despite the lack of demand, the economic concerns, and the environmental impact, in 2021, Japanese whalers will set out to hunt 171 minke whales, 187 Bryde’s whales, and 25 Sei whales. Since Japan left the IWC in 2019, the odds have appeared against them within the commercial whaling industry, however, the determination of the Government to resume hunting consistently strives to combat these impediments. Time will only begin to tell how the commercial whaling industry will transform following the global pandemic.