In this September 2017, photo, a minke whale is unloaded at a port after a whaling for scientific purposes in Kushiro, in the northernmost main island of Hokkaido. Japan is considering leaving the International Whaling Commission to resume commercial hunts after unsuccessfully campaigning for decades to gain support for the cause. The Fisheries Agency said Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, officials haven't made a final decision but are considering the step. (Kyodo News via AP)
© AP

Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission and restart commercial hunting for whales as it becomes the latest country to quit a body that limited its sovereignty.

Starting from July next year, when its withdrawal becomes effective, Japan will cease “research hunts” in the Antarctic and resume commercial whaling in its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, said chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga.

The withdrawal will render the IWC irrelevant, with the main pro-whaling states all outside it and ignoring its decisions, as countries increasingly refuse to be bound by international decisions with which they disagree.

The decision to withdraw from the commission was met with domestic and international criticism. The move was “short-tempered and emotional”, said Masayuki Komatsu, senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation and a former Japanese negotiator at the IWC.

Australia, also an IWC member, said it was “extremely disappointed” at Japan’s decision to resume commercial whaling. “[Japan’s] decision to withdraw is regrettable and Australia urges Japan to return to the convention and commission as a matter of priority,” said Marise Payne, foreign minister and Melissa Price, environment minister, in a joint statement.

Mr Suga said the IWC had departed from its founding principles and was ignoring the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, from which Japan would also withdraw.

The IWC has had a moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986. “The . . . commission has a dual mandate under the ICRW, that is, conservation of whale stocks and orderly development of the whaling industry,” Mr Suga said.

“Although scientific evidence has confirmed that certain stocks of whales are abundant . . .[other members] . . . refused to agree to take any tangible steps towards reaching a common position that would ensure the sustainable management of whale resources,” he added.

Australia, the US and the EU are part of an anti-whaling coalition that opposes Japan at the IWC. “It is not possible in the IWC even to seek the coexistence of states with different views,” said Mr Suga. “Consequently, Japan has been led to make its decision.”

While consumer demand for whale meat in Japan has plummeted and most of the catch from research hunts ends up in government stockpiles, the issue is totemic for nationalists and crucial to certain fishing villages represented by powerful members of the ruling Liberal Democratic party.

FILE PHOTO: Whale sashimi is pictured at a Japanese whale meat restaurant named 'Hogeisen', meaning whaling ship, in Tokyo January 16, 2008. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao/File Photo
© Reuters

The new policy means Japan will no longer subsidise research hunts in the Antarctic with its ageing long-distance whaling fleet. Hunting in Japan’s own waters, instead of the Southern Ocean, might also lower tension with Australia and New Zealand.

“If Japan leaving the IWC spells the end of their Southern Ocean whaling that would be a win for our whales,” said Darren Kindleysides, chief executive of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. “However, it would be a bittersweet victory if it comes with unchecked commercial whaling by Japan in its own waters, and leaving could damage the future of the IWC itself.”

A restart to whaling is not legally straightforward for Japan because it will still be bound by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which mandates international co-operation for managing whales.

Norway and Iceland, which both catch whales in defiance of the IWC moratorium, founded the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission as an alternative management body. Japan may need to persuade its neighbours to join a similar body to comply with the law.

Mr Suga said Japan would continue to engage with the IWC as an observer. “Whaling will be conducted in accordance with international law and within the catch limits calculated in accordance with the method adopted by the IWC,” he said.

But the Australian ministers said Canberra “remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called scientific whaling. We will continue to work within the commission to uphold the global moratorium on commercial whaling”.

Additional reporting by Mark Wembridge in Melbourne

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