Delegation at the International Whaling Commission argues stocks have recovered enough to allow ‘sustainable’ hunting
Japan has launched a controversial bid to end the ban on commercial whaling, claiming that populations of certain types of whale have recovered sufficiently to allow the resumption of “sustainable” hunting.
Representatives of Japan’s 70-strong delegation at this week’s International Whaling Commission [IWC] meeting in Florianópolis, Brazil, argued that the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling was intended to be a temporary measure, and accused the IWC of abandoning its original purpose – managing the sustainable use of global whale stocks.
“Science is clear: there are certain species of whales whose population is healthy enough to be harvested sustainably,” the Japanese proposal, titled Way Forward, said. “Japan proposes to establish a committee dedicated to sustainable whaling (including commercial whaling and aboriginal subsistence whaling).”
The proposal called for a change to the IWC’s decision-making process in an attempt to end what it called years of “intolerance” and “confrontation” between pro- and anti-whaling countries.
It would allow the IWC’s members to pass catch quotas with a simple majority rather than the current two-thirds majority from 2020 onwards – a change that would make it easier for Japan to end the ban on commercial whaling.
Japan’s longstanding criticism of the ban has soured relations with anti-whaling countries such as Australia and New Zealand, and prompted accusations that it has used its economic clout to secure votes from smaller IWC member states in the run-up to previous meetings.
Australia’s commitment to protecting whales was questioned after the government chose to send Senator Anne Ruston, a junior minister, to the IWC meeting.
“The Australian people have clearly made a decision that they don’t believe that whaling is something that we should be undertaking in the 21st century,” Ruston, assistant minister for international development and the Pacific, told reporters in Florianópolis.
“The argument that we put forward from Australia is that we don’t want to see any whales killed, whether they’re killed because (of) commercial whaling or whether it’s so-called scientific whaling,” Ruston added.
A spokesperson for the Australian government said Ruston had met with ministerial counterparts, commissioners and non-government representatives while at the commission meeting, before delivering an an opening statement on behalf of Australia.
New Zealand’s foreign minister, Winston Peters, called on the IWC to show leadership. “Now is not the time to step backwards,” he said. “New Zealand continues to support the moratorium on commercial whaling. We want to see the commission’s efforts on whale conservation strengthened, not weakened.”
A clause in the IWC ban allows Japan to conduct “research” hunts every year and to sell whale meat on the open market, although consumption has plummeted in recent decades.
Japan faced criticism earlier this year after reporting that its whaling fleet had killed 122 pregnant whales during its annual research hunt in the Southern Ocean last winter. Of the 333 minke whales caught during the four-month expedition, 181 were female – including 53 juveniles.
In 2014, the international court of justice ordered a halt to the annual slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean, after concluding that the hunts were not, as Japanese officials had claimed, conducted for scientific research. Japan resumed whaling in the region two years later under a revamped programme that included reducing its catch quota by about two-thirds.
Although Japan is not expected to secure the votes it needs to reform the IWC’s decision-making rules, conservation groups warned against complacency.
“This meeting is critical. The IWC should be a 21st century whale conservation body, not an old whalers’ club,” said Patrick Ramage, marine programme director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Member countries must stand together and push progress towards whale protection, not let this commission be pulled back into the bygone era of commercial whaling.”
It wasn’t immediately clear when IWC members would vote on Japan’s proposal. Waiting until Friday, when the meeting ends, would give dozens of Japanese officials in Florianópolis more time to lobby other delegations – a tactic they have used in the past to frustrate measures to protect other marine species.
In Canberra, protesters staged a low-key rally outside Japan’s embassy on Tuesday, organised by the former Greens leader Bob Brown, with banners describing the Japanese government as a “bloody whale criminal”.
Brown said “world public opinion” was opposed to Japan’s continued whaling activities. “Japan is coming into the southern hemisphere to attack the culture of Australia, which loves whales and is appalled by the massacre,” he said.
Alexia Wellbelove, campaigner at Humane Society International in Australia, said the country needed to “continue to be a staunch supporter for the conservation of whales, not the killing of whales.”
Working in the IWC, she said over the years the Australian government had supported moves to implement recovery plans for whales, while working towards programs to reduce other threats such as bycatch.