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Should We Make a Deal With Japan Over Whaling?

13/07/2015 17:05 BST | Updated 10/07/2016 10:59 BST

On at least two occasions since the moratorium on commercial whaling was agreed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), member nations have circled around the idea of coming to some form of compromise between the pro-whaling and the pro-whale sides. These attempts at compromise have failed and the moratorium remains in place, but there are indications that another deal is in the offing. This is an unfortunate development.

Some of the reasons for wanting the best possible relations with Japan are perhaps obvious. International instability is significant and the economies of many countries remain fragile. So, this is clearly a good time to consolidate relations between developed nations, and currently one major trade agreement is being advanced between Japan, Australia, the USA, and several other Pacific nations, with another in negotiation between the EU and Japan.

However, it remains difficult to ignore the issue of whaling in such dialogue with Japan. Those who wish to consolidate relations with Japan may not see whaling as a major issue. But Japan still does, with significant political players, from the current Prime Minister on down, supporting a resumption of 'scientific whaling' in Antarctica and pressing to legalise catches in Japan's own waters.

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Blue whale off California: blue whales were almost driven to extinction by previous whaling. Credit: Mark Simmonds HSI

The IWC's agreement in 1982 to impose a moratorium on whaling came in the aftermath of failed attempts to make whaling sustainable. Given the problems involved in monitoring whales (and whalers) and the slow reproductive rates of these leviathans, achieving sustainability was always going to be incredibly difficult. Not surprisingly, efforts to agree to a Revised Management Scheme - one that could have established essential independent oversight and precautionary whale catch quotas - stalled some years ago.

The pro-whaling side would now have us believe that it would be adequate for the IWC's scientific committee to define whale catch quotas without any management regime at all. Those who favour striking a deal have previously characterised the moratorium as an 'impasse' that suits no one, with both 'sides' having enough votes to block each other on any major decision, including lifting the moratorium and setting quotas. It is often also argued that commercial whaling is going ahead anyway, with Norway, Iceland and Japan killing whales for profit despite the moratorium, and that a resumption of legal commercial whaling would bring these hunts back under international control.

So, what might a compromise deal look like? One version could be that the moratorium remains in place (or is at least not repealed) with an exception allowing Japan to whale in the North Pacific (where its other annual scientific whaling programme takes place) or even just in its own waters. This could be a formal recognition of what Japan calls its 'Small Type Coastal Whaling' in the North Pacific, which bears a growing (and undoubtedly strategic) resemblance to Greenland's semi-commercialised 'aboriginal' whaling, as granted at the last meeting of the IWC in Portoroz, Slovenia.

The hope may be that in return for Pacific whaling perhaps Japan could be persuaded to stop whale killing in Antarctic waters. However, there are obviously legal problems in how such an agreement could be made viable, including how a special category of whaling could be reserved or limited for Japan's use only. And what kind of precedent would this set? Other nations clearly remain interested in whaling. South Korea, for example, has recently stated it wishes to resume whaling. Undermining the moratorium by any measure would remove a legal impediment that is currently keeping would-be whaling nations at bay.

Moreover, setting the precedent of limiting whaling to perhaps an economic exclusion zone (EEZ) of a nation and thinking that this might protect the whales in the high seas would be to ignore the highly mobile and migratory nature of the animals concerned. Many of them live in, regularly migrate through or breed within EEZs, something which would allow a skilled and energetic whaling fleet to still take a substantive toll on whale populations.

Fundamentally, commercial whaling meets no pressing human need. A legally agreed commercial whaling ban is in place along with a legally agreed ban in international whale meat trade, and yet the whaling nations flout these decisions. Similarly, Japan was told to stop whaling in Antarctica by the International Court of Justice last year and it is now clear that Japan has adopted a very narrow interpretation of this ruling and is preparing to return to the Antarctic.

The global community should not capitulate on any level, this defiance should not be rewarded, and no compromise should be brokered. Commercial whaling is inherently cruel and the stubbornness of the whaling nations offers a threat to the rule of international law. The nations of the world should resist that threat with every means available, and decouple the stain of whaling from twenty-first century diplomatic and commercial negotiations.

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