Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission in 2019 and formally recommenced commercial whaling for the first time in over 30 years. What were the motivations behind the withdrawal and consequences of it – from the whale population in the country to the international responses?
Before 1946, whales were considered to be “natural resources” that could be hunted and killed without limits. With the development of science and technology, humankind’s ability to hunt and kill the mammals has become stronger, and as a result, the number of whales has declined sharply over the years. In order to protect the population of whales around the world, and to prevent the animal going extinct, the international community has made many efforts, including the establishment of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The mandate of the IWC is the regulation of whale hunting and conservation of whale stocks.
What has the International Community Done to Protect Whales?
The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), which was signed in 1946, assigns each country a quota for the amount of whales they catch each year. The convention provided the springboard for the formal establishment of the IWC in 1948 for nations to coordinate whaling affairs. Currently there are 89 member states. The IWC adopted the first Global Whaling Ban Convention in 1986 and The Southern Ocean Whaling Ban Convention in 1994, both of which explicitly prohibit the commercial killing of whales.
Commercial Whaling in Japan
Japan joined the IWC in 1951 and signed 1986 Convention. Under the pressure of the voting results, IWC forced the country to end commercial whaling in 1988. But Japan, citing the (ICRW), has instead engaged in so-called “investigative whaling” in the northwest Pacific and waters near Antarctica in the name of “scientific research”. Since the IWC agreed to suspend all commercial whaling in 1982, Japan has been pushing unsuccessfully for a resumption of commercial whaling.
In 2010, Australia brought a case against Japan at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, accusing Japan of violating the Convention. On March 31, 2014, the ICJ ruled that Japan was in violation of the IWC’s moratorium on whaling, and that Japan’s annual Antarctic whale hunt was a commercial activity disguised as scientific research. Peter Tomka, the presiding judge of the international court, said there was no evidence that Japan’s whaling programme had been designed and conducted in accordance with its stated scientific objectives.
The IWC rejected a proposal by Japan to resume commercial whaling in September 2018, sparking renewed threats by Japan to withdraw from the IWC.
Between 1980 and 2015, Japan caught over 400,000 whales of all species, accounting for 80% of the world’s total, according to the IWC. Since the convention came into force in 1986, Japan has exploited a loophole in the treaty to aggressively hunt whales in the Pacific and Southern Oceans.
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Japan Withdraws from IWC and Consequences of the Decision
Japan officially withdrew from the IWC on June 30, 2019, and from The ICRW in July 2019. Immediately following the country’s withdrawal and 31 years after their last catch, Japan resumed commercial whaling, which is confined to its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. However, Japan can no longer conduct “research whaling” in the Antarctic waters and must rejoin the IWC to do so.
According to Japan’s Fisheries Agency, the whaling cap will be increased to 383 after 2020, including 171 minke whales, 187 Brinell whales and 25 bobbin whales. The increased number of whale hunting in Japan could have irreversible impacts for the survival of the species.
Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC may inspire other countries including Russia to follow suit. Other countries should take responsibility and prevent further harm to the marine species, such as imposing sanctions and reject Japan’s access to fishing in their waters. At the moment, Japan remains an IWC observer. Even if they don’t return to IWC as predicted, it is likely the country would no longer be a part of any international dialogue on whaling in the future.
Featured image by: Flickr