Japan seeks to end to ban on commercial whaling

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Tensions flared at the 2018 International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Brazil this week. Delegates from member nations have clashed, sometimes bitterly, over proposals to create a new whale sanctuary zone in the South Atlantic and Japan bid to end the 30-year ban on commercial whaling.

On Friday, the final day of the meeting, the IWC votes on a number of topics that have been under discussion throughout the week, including a motion to simplify voting rules so that a two-thirds majority is not needed to pass proposals. Proving most controversial, however, is an attempt to reposition the IWC’s mission as ‘resource management’ rather than more straightforward ‘conservation’. Under this new mission, Japan is seeking to set up a committee to explore the possibility of resuming commercial whaling activities with the IWC’s blessing.

Following the devastating impact on cetacean populations caused by the rapacious whaling industry in the 19th and 20th centuries, the IWC imposed a moratorium on hunting whales for profit in 1985. This moratorium has not by any means ended the practice; Norway refuses to recognise it and Iceland signed the agreement only “under reservation” – hunting whales for meat remains legal but comes with restrictions. Several exceptions exist, including a protection for indigenous groups hunting for cultural subsistence.

Japan takes a similarly lukewarm approach to the moratorium, using the exemption that allows the killing of whales for scientific research to prop up the flagging whale meat industry. Japan’s Fisheries Agency reports that, under this clause, 333 minke whales have been killed and studied this year in an attempt to gauge the overall health of the minke population, claiming that there is no non-lethal way to obtain this information.

Japan’s position is that the high number of pregnant minke whales they catch shows that the species is thriving and does not need to be governed by conservation principles. The IWC agreement does not prohibit the subsequent selling and consumption of the hunted carcasses once they have been studied. A relaxation of the moratorium would cut out this middle step of scientific research between sea and supermarket.

Japan’s passionate defence of its population’s right to eat whale meat appears to be more cultural than it is practical. Interest from the general public in eating whale seems to be dwindling. A 2013 survey conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) suggested that 9 out of 10 people in Japan hadn’t brought any whale products in the past year. The Japanese government heavily subsidises the industry on the grounds that it’s an important part of the country’s cultural heritage.

The Australian delegation at the IWC has been particularly vocal in opposing the plans, with a representative making the point that whales are not only under threat from potential overfishing (which Japan says it will legislate against), but from climate change and marine pollution.

Despite this – and other – criticism it remains to be seen how the IWC will vote on the proposal. Earlier this week, an alliance of whaling countries successfully voted down a move put forward by Brazil’s Environment Minster to create a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic, in which hunting would be entirely banned. At present, two such sanctuaries exist, one in the Indian Ocean and one in the Southern Ocean.

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