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Japan opts out of the IWC: the downfall of whaling?

On December 26, just between the Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the government of Japan announced its intention to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) with the aim of resuming commercial whaling operations in its jurisdictional waters from July 2019.

Media and social networks were flooded with news and comments full of outrage and fear against Japan. However, since the implementation of the global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, the Japanese government has never complied with this conservation measure. In just over 30 years, the Japanese whaling fleet has captured more than 17,000 whales from the oceans, in an attempt to keep alive local trade in meat and other whale products.

In addition, the government of Japan has abused and discredited the purpose of scientific research established under the IWC, arguing that these hunts are part of ‘scientific’ programs. A claim that was completely invalidated in 2014 when the highest international legal body, the International Court of Justice, ruled these killings as illegal due to their commercial nature and ordered Japan to cease the continuation of these programs. Japan responded by basically changing the name of its ‘scientific’ whaling research programs and continued with the slaughter.

Over the past three decades, Japan’s whaling operations in the name of ‘science’ have not only violate the moratorium on commercial whaling. They also contravene protected areas established under international law. The largest percentage of whales have been captured in the Southern Ocean, an area designated in 1994 as a whale sanctuary by all IWC members, except Japan. And since last year, the Japanese Antarctic whaling fleet oriented its whaling efforts in the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area, created under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

The continuation of commercial whaling despite the moratorium is not the only questionable conduct of the government of Japan as a member of the IWC. The use of fisheries aid programs to developing countries of Africa and the Caribbean – preferably in vulnerable political and economic situations – in turn for their membership and support for its whaling agenda at the IWC, has become the biggest obstacle to adapt the work of the Commission to the present interests and conservation needs of cetacean species in the world. Proposals such as the establishment of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary have not been able to obtain 75 percent of the support necessary for its creation, exclusively because of the votes casted against by the countries recruited by Japan.

The government of Japan says that it must abandon the Commission because the IWC is a dysfunctional body, incapable of allowing commercial whaling. However, several facts seem to show that there are other reasons. Its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is also the electoral representative of Shimonoseki, one of the main whaling ports of that country. In addition, Abe is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, composed by influential politicians belonging to municipalities with strong whaling interests that have been firmly lobbying to resume commercial whaling operations. However, the economic viability of this dubious Japanese bid to try to resume commercial whaling has been questioned, even by Japanese whaling operators.

It is estimated that the average annual consumption of whale meat per person in Japan is just 30 grams and the price of these products has dropped about 40 percent during the last decade.

But perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC is its decision to end whaling operations in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary. This area has always been its main objective to resume and revitalize industrial commercial whaling. However, the continuous disinterest of the Japanese public to consume whale products and financial factors could be the reason. In January 2018, the Fisheries Agency of Japan reported that it was going to submit a plan oriented to renew its distant waters whaling fleet, showing that Japan had no interest in abandoning the IWC. On the contrary, it suggested it was looking for funds to ensure the long-term continuation of its whaling operations in Antarctica. The old and precarious japanese whaling fleet does not comply with current maritime security standards adopted in the last decade by the International Maritime Organization for vessels operating in the Southern Ocean. This forces Japan to renew its whaling fleet if it aspires to continue whaling in Antarctica. But providing Japan with a revitalized whaling fleet necessarily requires financial guarantees and legal certainty to convince financers that their investment will have valuable economic returns. Despite Japan’s continued efforts to impose its unilateral whaling policy, lift the moratorium and eliminate the sanctuary, it systematically failed to achieve any of these goals within the IWC. As a result, the interest to sponsor a new fleet vanished.

The consequences for Japan, the role of multilateral organizations, the IWC and the whales after the Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC are multiple and varied.

Although the government of Japan presents its withdrawal from the IWC as a solution to revitalize commercial whaling in its Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial sea, the moratorium also applies to jurisdictional waters. In addition, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which Japan is a party, obliges member states to “work through the appropriate international organizations” for whaling. This organization is the IWC. And though Japan says it will continue to participate as an observer in the Commission, this status does not grant the country the right to resume commercial whaling. If Japan continues with its plan, it will become the first pirate whaling nation that kills whales for commercial purposes outside the competence of the IWC. The costs associated to this conduct should be high enough to discourage Japan as well as to prevent other countries from following this alarming example of contempt to the rules of international law.

With the exception of the IWC, Japan has been characterized for supporting multilateralism. Therefore, its withdrawal from the IWC could be seen as a signal of change of its policy and – after the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change – it could become a concerning trend where countries simply abandon all cooperation efforts when their particular interests differ from the agreements reached by the international community.

For the IWC, the departure of Japan represents a positive change. For the first time in more than a century, the Southern Ocean will be free from the slaughter of these marine mammals. The Southern Ocean whale sanctuary will finally be fully respected since its creation 25 years ago, as well as the Ross Sea marine protected area, created under CCAMLR in October 2016. Also, IWC membership could positively change with the eventual withdrawal of Japan. Unconditional allies of Japan that participate in the IWC in exchange of fisheries aid programs and other favors could leave the Commission. Moreover, the work of the Commission would no longer be hampered by what has been one of the most contentious issues since the creation of this international organization: the so-called “scientific” whaling programs. And the members of the IWC will be able to focus their efforts and financial resources on effectively advancing in the global and orderly development of the non-lethal use of whales (tourism and scientific research), as well as on programs that assist these marine giants to cope with a growing number of risks – such as climate change, pollution, collision with boats, entanglement in fishing nets, marine debris, etc. – that threatens their long-term conservation.

For the whales and the oceans, the end of whaling in international waters is a step forward in the conservation of these mammals, their marine ecosystems and the planet. Whales play a fundamental role in the fertilization of the oceans. Its feces, rich in iron, nitrogen and other nutrients, are essential for the blooming of microscopic plants (phytoplankton) that nourish and sustain the life of a rich diversity of zooplankton species, which form the basis of the rest of the marine trophic network, including whales. Contrary to Japanese propaganda, there is no need to kill whales to maintain healthy populations of fish. Quite the opposite. If commercial whaling had not brought most of the whale species to the brink of extinction, today we would have healthier, more resilient and more productive oceans.

Whales are also strategic allies on issues as real and concerning as climate change. Phytoplankton and marine algae use carbon dioxide, water and solar energy to produce their food, releasing oxygen in the process. Current science suggests that marine plants produce more than fifty percent of the planet’s oxygen. Protecting whales as promoters of its abundance is vital. Not only to maintain and increase the capacity of the oceans to absorb CO2. Half of the oxygen we breathe throughout our lives depends largely on healthy whale populations.

Current scientific knowledge on the importance of live whales for the health of the ocean and marine productivity is so important, that in 2016 and 2018 the IWC became the first international organization to adopt two resolutions, promoted by Chile, that fully integrate these parameters into their decision-making processes.

In its ruling against Japan in 2014, the International Court of Justice affirmed that the IWC is an evolving body. Like other evolutionary processes, we should expect that Japan’s incapacity to adapt to the interests of today’s non-lethal use and conservation needs of cetacean species will lead to the disappearance of an unnecessary, anachronistic and harmful activity as it is commercial whaling.

Elsa Cabrera, executive director of Centro de Conservacion Cetacea, accredited observer to the IWC since 2001.