Can Japan Convince International Community to Support “Sustainable” Whaling?

The International Whaling Commission’s 78 members are meeting in London next month in an effort to reach agreement on whale conservation rules. Meanwhile, global whale hunting continues to increase.

The March 6–8 gathering, titled The Future of the IWC,” will prepare IWC member states for their annual meeting in Chile this June. Delegates at the June conference will likely face considerable pressure to produce an agreement on the future of whaling, particularly in light of rising catches by Japan and other countries.

“There has been an expansion of scientific whaling and whaling by objection, by number and species, and that’s worrisome,” said Doug DeMaster, a marine mammal biologist and the acting commissioner for the March meeting’s U.S. delegation. “The IWC isn’t managing commercial whaling. It isn’t doing a good job of that now.”

The international community agreed in 1982 on a global moratorium on commercial whaling, but previous accords allow whaling if conducted “for the purpose of scientific research.” During the 2005–06 hunting season, Japan captured at least 800 minke whale, double the number from a decade earlier. This season, on top of the minke harvest, Japan had planned to catch 50 humpback whales and 50 fin whales, but it agreed to halt the humpback hunt due to mounting international pressure.

Japan is advocating for a change in the IWC’s so-called Revised Management Scheme that would allow for “sustainable” whaling. With most whale populations still recovering from severe losses in the 19th and 20th centuries, no such management plan currently exists. According to the Japanese, science-based whaling is needed to research whales’ ages, population size, and diets. “While certain information can be obtained through non-lethal means, other information requires sampling of internal organs, such as ovaries, ear plugs and stomachs,” said Joji Morishita, Japan’s director of negotiations, at the Pew Tokyo Whale Symposium in January.

Japan’s government-financed Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR) is often criticized for conducting unnecessary whale research. “Industrial nations killed 2 million [large whales] in the Southern Hemisphere in the last century. The science conducted on those whales was from commercial operations,” observed Scott Baker, a biologist at Oregon State University. “It’s hard to believe that more science is needed that we didn’t get from [those].” Critics also accuse the scientific whaling program for serving as a front for Japan’s alleged attempts to monopolize the Pacific’s whale meat market.

To change the IWC’s existing agreements, a three-fourths vote is necessary. Whaling is opposed by at least half of the member countries, including most vociferously Australia but also the United States. “Many member nations are uncomfortable, unsatisfied with the compliance features of the management scheme, and they will not support a proposal,” said U.S. delegate DeMaster. The European Union, which is not “yet” a party to the IWC, has also publicly chastised Japan’s whaling program.

In addition to diplomatic pressure, Japan is facing tremendous difficulties on the high seas. Australia’s new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has sent custom officials to spy on the ICR’s whaling vessel, the Nisshin Maru. Earlier this month, Australia released a gruesome video of a mother and calf harpooned and dragged on board the ship. Meanwhile, Greenpeace has stalled refueling efforts by wedging a small inflatable craft between a fuel tanker and the whaling vessel. Japanese officials accuse another activist group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, of “hurling stink bombs”—glass bottles containing butyric acid—at the ICR ship.

Such stunts may be forcing Japan to catch fewer whales. Already, the country’s whaling program appears to be facing considerable financial pressure. The ICR did not pay back 1 billion of the 3.6 billion yen the government loaned it in 2006, The Asahi Shimbun reported this month. Meanwhile, whale meat suppliers are struggling to find a market, and about 4,000 tons remained in cold storage last year, said Greenpeace ocean campaigner John Frizell, who closely monitors all whaling operations.

Japan is not the only offender being targeted. Norway and Iceland kill some 600 and 30 whales, respectively, each year, in objection to IWC rules. And while whaling is illegal in South Korea, any whales accidentally tangled in nets can be sold legally on the market. Even so, more species—including humpbacks—are found for commercial sale in the country than are officially reported to the government, suggesting a growing Korean black market. Last month, a sting operation against an alleged whaling racket seized 50 tons of minke meat, resulting in wide-scale arrests.

On March 1, just before the IWC’s London meeting, Sidney Holt, former secretary of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, will host about 30 researchers at his home in Italy to discuss conservation measures and whether “sustainable” whaling is an ecologically viable option. “Scientists wrote to me saying they’re really tired of being reactive on the whaling commission; they should start to be proactive,” said Holt, who now advises the non-profit groups Global Ocean and the Third Millennium Foundation. “Things are happening that aren’t going to be comfortable in Tokyo.”

The International Whaling Commission’s 78 members are meeting in London next month in an effort to reach agreement on whale conservation rules. Meanwhile, global whale hunting continues to increase.