After 31 years, Japan resumes commercial whaling. The decision is highly controversial internationally. Why does Japan refuse to put down its harpoons?
Although there has been criticism from international organizations, Japan has responded enthusiastically to the resumption of commercial whaling. The fleets are armed with harpoons with which hundreds of whales are killed until the end of this year.
Jeroen Hoekendijk, marine biologist and whale expert at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), comments on the news. “It now seems that Japan has not been whaling for a long time, but since whaling has been banned, Japan has continued whaling, both in its own territorial waters and in international seas.”
Whale hunting for ‘scientific purposes’
Whale hunting is regulated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). In 1986 it was agreed by the participating IWC countries that whales are no longer commercially hunted; the so-called moratorium. An exception within this moratorium is the hunting of whales for research purposes, an option that Japan frequently used.
Japan has spoken out several times as a fierce opponent of the ban. According to Japan, the country only hunts whale species that are not threatened with extinction.
But why is hunting so important for Japan? According to Hoekendijk there are two aspects. “On the one hand, they like to consume whale meat in Japan, it is a prestige product there. On the other hand, it is a kind of national pride; they have been doing it for hundreds of years.”
Internationally there has been much criticism of hunting under the guise of scientific research, both by various NGOs and by governments. In 2014, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that hunting for Antarctic minke whales in the Southern Ocean was not done for scientific research, but boiled down to commercial hunting.
In 2018, Japan left the partnership because, according to the country, there was insufficient room to make hunting a subject for discussion.
Whale species that are little known about are at risk
The main consequences of this are that Japan can no longer hunt whales in international waters, because this would be contrary to various other international conventions. On the other hand, this means that Japan can now hunt whales in its own territorial waters and in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), without having to account to the IWC.
Hoekendijk is very concerned about the fact that Japan is going to fish intensively in its own waters. “There are two groups of minke whales in Japanese waters, the so-called J-stock and O-stock. These two groups differ morphologically, genetically and in terms of behavior. Relatively little is known about J-stock. When there is no distinction between these populations, there is a high risk that the J-stock will be hit disproportionately hard. ”
In addition, the J-stock is also at risk for other reasons. “This population is also hit hard by by-catch in nets, both in Japan and in South Korea. In both countries it is legal to sell this by-catch commercially. We see that part of the meat offered cannot be explained by the reported figures, so there is also an illegal trade in these net-caught whales, “says Hoekendijk.
Positive sides too
Meike Scheidat, whale researcher at Wageningen Marine Research and member of the scientific committee of the IWC, is concerned about the populations in Japanese waters, just like Hoekendijk. “But no matter how double it is, there are also positive sides to it.” Now that Japan is no longer a member of the IWC, the country is no longer allowed to hunt in international waters. “We can use the energy that we previously used in Japan for other projects.”
The IWC was established in 1946 to regulate whale hunting so that everyone could continue to benefit from the catch. These days, the focus is on protection. In addition to hunting, there are many other factors that threaten the whale, including the many plastic particles in the oceans and the by-catch of whales in fishing nets.
Scheidat does not yet know whether the IWC will interfere with Japan. “We would like to do a study to see if the Japanese yacht is indeed sustainable. But how? That is not yet clear.”