29/09/2014 13:42 BST | Updated 29/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Whither Japanese Whaling

This year, the International Court of Justice ruled Japan's whaling in Antarctica was not scientific and therefore illegal. Following this ruling, the outstanding questions at the International Whaling Commission meeting that took place earlier this month in Slovenia were how would Japan react, and what would the IWC do?

Having recently returned from the IWC, I can report the large number of film crews and journalists in attendance attested to the high level of global public interest in this controversial issue. Much was at stake - for years, Japan has defied the international moratorium on commercial whaling by claiming its ongoing whaling was scientific in nature (while generating large quantities of whale meat). The ICJ saw through this, and at the 65th IWC meeting the New Zealand delegation advanced a proposal or 'resolution' (IWC/65/14 Rev 1) seeking to inscribe the international court's decision into new IWC rules for the future assessment of proposals for 'scientific whaling.'


Media gather at IWC65 in Slovenia. Photo: M Simmonds

Although predictably Japan and its allies opposed the resolution, and some Latin American nations abstained or voted against (in general, they felt the resolution did not condemn 'scientific whaling' strongly enough), the resolution gained the simple majority it needed. The IWC Scientific Committee must advise on whether the design and implementation of a scientific whaling programme, including sample sizes, "are reasonable in relation to achieving the programme's stated research objectives," and "whether the objectives of the research could be achieved by non-lethal means."

While much debate at the IWC was stolid, predictable and polite, for me Japan made the most telling intervention after the passing of the New Zealand resolution. The Japanese Commissioner pointed out to the congregation that there were four high-level Japanese politicians present who had attended the four day meeting. This, he said, was unusual, and he added that Japan's whaling was supported by all of its political parties.

We already knew the move to resume whaling in Antarctica was approved from the highest levels, so what was the purpose of this high-level deputation to the IWC? Whatever their intentions, those politicians will have heard support for commercial whaling from the other commercial whaling nations and a range of developing nations, which traditionally vote in lockstep with Japan. Nothing new there. However, they will also have witnessed courteous, but firm, opposition to Japan from many nations, as well as some powerful criticism.


IWC65 Slovenia. Photo: M Simmonds.

With such conflicting and strongly held positions, it must be difficult for politicians (or the public) to see the wood for the trees. For example, the eco-myth that big whales eat fish that fishermen would otherwise catch may sound compelling, but recent scientific studies not only largely refute this, but are also starting to show the contribution whales make to healthy marine ecosystems.

Arguably even more beguiling is the notion that commercial whaling can be made sustainable. But there are important differences between what is hypothetical and what actually happens in practice on the high seas. Apart from the inherent problems of viewing vulnerable, slow-reproducing cetaceans as a sustainable resource, the costs that underpin assessing sustainability in the first place is rarely taken into account by Japan (and others).

Assessing whale populations costs money. The checks and balances required come with a large price tag, and this includes the large and expensive boats needed to regularly conduct surveys at sea. There is no IWC-agreed management regime for commercial whaling. Such a regime would surely include independent assessment of whales killed and landed and a DNA registry. These too would cost money, on top of the actual costs of sending whaling fleets and crews to distant seas. From a purely financial perspective, the sustainable whaling argument simply does not stack up.

Will those Japanese politicians who sat through the IWC, and the others listening to the live-feed, be weighing all these matters? I hope so. Indeed an editorial just published in the Japanese Asahi Shimbun shows not everyone in Japan is supportive of whaling. The author observes, 'With domestic consumption of whale meat remaining sluggish, the system designed to finance scientific whaling with money earned from sales of whale meat obtained through this program, is no longer working. The question the government should ask itself is whether it really makes sense to forge ahead with its plan to restart this controversial whaling program, which could cause Japan to be internationally isolated and requires annual spending of as much as billions of yen of taxpayer money.' Similar sentiments have also been expressed in the wide-circulation Yomiuri newspaper.

For the moment, Japan seems intent on launching its plan for a new 'scientific' whaling programme in the Southern Ocean. Whilst it has some allies, the issue drives a wedge between Japan and many other nations. Japan may be able to deflect charges against whaling, including that it is cruel, by casting such criticism as a form of anti-Japanese cultural imperialism. Our only hope is that, given the ICJ ruling is above any rhetoric or politics, perhaps those in power in Japan will be better able to see that commercial whaling is ecologically unsound, uneconomic and, in terms of international relations, disastrous.

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