Whaling in Japan

Japan continues to kill whales and sell the meat from its hunts, despite the ban (moratorium) on commercial whaling. Japan's whalers have recently been able to exploit a loophole in the founding treaty of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which allows whaling for 'scientific research'. However, as of 31st march 2014, the UN's International Court of Justice has ordered it to stop whaling in Antarctica and that its so-called 'scientific whaling' is not compatible with the ICRW, the rulings of the IWC, or international law.

Current Whaling

As of the 31st March, Japanese Antarctic whaling was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

In a damning ruling the Court has found:

Japan’s whaling in Antarctica does not comply with the IWC’s definition of scientific permit whaling

“…that the special permits granted by Japan in connection with  JARPA II do not fall within the provisions of Article VIII, paragraph 1, of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling;”

That Japan is in contravention with the moratorium on commercial whaling 

“…that Japan, by granting special permits to kill, take and treat fin,  humpback and Antarctic minke whales in pursuance of JARPA II, has not acted in conformity  with its obligations under paragraph 10 (e) of the Schedule to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling;”

That Japan is in contravention with the moratorium on factory ship whaling

“…finds, by twelve votes to four, that Japan has not acted in conformity with its obligations underparagraph 10 (d) of the Schedule to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in relation to the killing, taking and treating of fin whales in pursuance of JARPA II;”

That Japan is in contravention of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary

“… that Japan has not acted in conformity with its obligations under  paragraph 7 (b) of the Schedule to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling  in relation to the killing, taking and treating of fin whales in the “Southern Ocean Sanctuary” in  pursuance of JARPA II;”

The Court orders Japan to cease all Antarctic whaling and not to issue any more permits to whale in Antarctica

“… that Japan shall revoke any extant authorization, permit or licence granted in relation to JARPA II, and refrain from granting any further permits in  pursuance of that programme.”

Full statement from the Court

Past hunts

Because Japan hunts whales in Antarctica in the southern summer, catch statistics are often recorded over the change from one year to the other.

In the 2012-2013 Antarctic season Japan killed a reported 103 minke whales.

In 2011/2012 Japan killed some 445 whales in total.

This figure includes 297 minke whales, 50 Bryde's whales, 2 fin whales, 95 sei whales and one sperm whale.

In 2010/2011 Japan also killed some 445 whales.

This figure includes the 2010 hunts in the open ocean of the North Pacific where 3 sperm whales, 100 sei whales, 50 Bryde's and 14 minke whales were killed, whilst in the coastal hunt in the North Pacific, 105 minke whales were killed.

In Antarctica (between December 2010 and February 2011), the Japanese fleet killed 2 fin whales and 171 minke whales.

Recent History

Japan has a limited tradition of small scale whaling that dates back centuries. However, its large scale, industrial whaling is a relatively new phenomenon, starting after World War II when animal protein was in short supply.

Japanese whalers flensing whale onboard their factory ship

Japan continues to kill whales and sell the meat from its hunts, despite the ban (moratorium) on commercial whaling. To do this it exploits a loophole in the founding treaty of the International Whaling Commission (IWC ), which allows whaling for scientific research. It also hunts in an IWC-designated sanctuary in Antarctica, under an objection it lodged to that decision in 1994.

Currently, Japan allocates its whalers annual research quotas for 10 sperm, 100 sei, 50 Bryde’s and 120 minke whales in the North Pacific (60 of which are killed by Small Type Coastal Whalers), and up to 935 minkes and 50 fin whales in Antarctica, making a total of 1225 whales a year. Hunting of 50 humpbacks a year was planned to begin late in 2007, however worldwide opposition forced Japan to postpone this hunt. Japan continues to threaten to include humpbacks as a part of its quota, despite not having killed any, which many conservation groups see as a negotiating tool in its discussions at the IWC.

‘Scientific’ whaling


The International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling on all great whale species in 1982, with the ban coming into effect in 1986. Japan, along with Norway and the USSR, immediately lodged a legal objection to the moratorium, which exempted them from the ban’s effect. Japan took over 5,500 whales ‘under objection’ in the first three years of the ban, but was persuaded by political pressure to remove the objection in full by 1988. It is therefore now bound by the ban on commercial whaling.

However, Article VIII of the IWC’s founding treaty, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW ) permits contracting governments to issue ‘special permits’ to their nationals for scientific research. To avoid wastage, the Article states that “Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government by which the permit was granted”.

The provision was not intended by the drafters of the ICRW to allow for large scale lethal research for commercial use of the ‘byproducts’, but several countries have exploited Article VIII to either avoid the IWC’s bans on hunting specific species, or to ‘top up’ their quotas. Japan, for example, killed 840 whales for scientific research between 1954 and 1986.

Because it is a provision in the treaty, Article VIII was believed to prevail over the whaling moratorium which is a regulation in the ICRW’s Schedule. However, the ICJ has now thrown this understanding into doubt, saying that Scientific permit whaling has to be very narrowly defined to not be caught by the moratorium provisions.

However, this still makes it a monumental loophole that the IWC cannot close without amending the treaty. Use of the scientific whaling loophole clearly defies the spirit of moratorium and the will of the IWC, and the Commission has adopted over 40 resolutions denying the validity and necessity of scientific whaling programmes and calling on Japan and other nations to stop taking whales in this way. However, these resolutions are non-binding and the whaling nations have ignored them.

Japan started Scientific Whaling in 1988 as soon as its objection was fully withdrawn, but it restricted its operations. Having killed an average of 1,800 whales a year from four species under objection, Japan’s scientific whaling focused on just one species – southern hemisphere minke whales; catching an average of 308 annually for the next six years.

In 1994, the IWC declared the Southern Ocean a sanctuary for whales, banning whaling there. Japan, however, did not stop its Antarctic hunts and lodged an objection to the sanctuary, exempting it from the effect of the ban. That same year, Japan started a scientific whaling programme in the North Pacific, taking up to 100 minke whales a year there in JARPN (Japanese Research Programme in the Pacific).

In 2000, Japan increased its Pacific operation again, adding permits for 50 Bryde’s whales and 10 sperm whales. In 2002, it increased the North Pacific minke quota to 150 and added 50 sei whales. This increased again the following year to 160 minkes and 100 sei whales.

The next increase came when the original 18-year research permit for the Antarctic hunt expired in 2005 and JARPA II (Japanese Research Programme in the Antarctic) was developed. JARPA II proposed to kill up to 935 Antarctic minke whales (more than double the previous number), 50 humpback whales and 50 fin whales a year for 16 years. The full programme commenced in late 2007 following a 2-year ‘feasibility study which began in late 2005 in which 935 minkes and ten fin whales were targeted annually.

Although it cannot prevent the research taking place, the IWC requires the review of Scientific Permits by its Scientific Committee. However, unlike other scientific reviews this is far from independent and the reviewers include the authors of the permit, including researchers at the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which oversees the hunts and conducts the ‘research’. This is a clear conflict of interest since the ICR sells the meat from the hunts and benefits financially from increases in the programme.

The new JARPA II permits were considered by the Scientific Committee in 2005 before JARPA I had even completed its data collection and before the full results of its 18 years of research were available. A large number of the Scientific Committee members objected to the review taking place on the basis that so little data from JARPA I had been published in international peer reviewed literature that it was not possible to judge quality of Japan’s research or its relevance to the management of whales by the IWC. Sixty-three members of the Scientific Committee argued that it would be “scientifically indefensible” to conduct the review and pointed to serious flaws in Japan’s scientific justification for the program. The review of JARPA I results took place in December 2006 and the results were reported to the IWC at its May 2007 meeting. A workshop of the IWC Scientific Committee found that ‘none of the goals of JARPA 1 had been reached, and that the results of the JARPA 1 programme are not required for management under the RMP .’ (IWC 59/27 – resolution of the IWC).

“Bycatch” whaling

In 2009, published DNA analyses of whale meat from Japanese markets indicted that as many as 150 large whales, from vulnerable coastal stocks were taken annually as bycatch by Japanese fishers. In 2001, Japan changed its legislation to allow the commercial sale of whales caught incidentally; entangled in fishing nets designed to catch coastal fish. A high percentage of the whales sold (as much as 46%) proved to be from an endangered stock of minke whales, the J-stock. According to IWC population estimates, this high rate of bycatch poses a significant threat to the survivability of the J-stock; if these trends continue, the population could face extinction within a few decades.

Japanese whalers measuring whale parts

A subsidised industry

The Japanese Government issues research whaling permits to the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) which, in turn, contracts a single whaling company, Kyodo Senpaku, to provide the vessels and crew. The ICR releases the products from the hunts twice a year to Kyodo Senpaku to sell at a price fixed by the ICR and Ministry of Fisheries to wholesalers, processors and local authorities. The primary purpose of the sale is to cover the costs of whaling and research, and although recent market conditions are taken into account, in recent years ICR has set prices rather high relative to demand.

Wholesalers and retailers, however, are subject to market forces and their prices reflect current market conditions. In recent years margins have been squeezed and there have been reports of unsold meat and retailers cutting prices to ’get it off their shelves’. Wholesalers and retailers may be willing to support losses in the short run, in order to maintain their rights to purchase and sell whaling by-products in future years, but in the long run these losses are not sustainable. Furthermore actual sales have been less than planned sales in recent years. For example, in 2006/7 planned sales were US$ 58.0 million, while actual sales were US$ 46.5 million. In 2007/8 planned sales were US$64.6 million and actual sales were US$48.8 million. The report showed that wholesale prices of whale meat per kg in Japan have been falling since 1994, starting at just over US$30/kg in 1994, and declining to US$16.40 in 2006.

Even though the ICR sets prices high relative to demand, they are not high enough to cover all costs. High subsidies are required to maintain Japan’s “scientific whaling” operations, and these subsidies have increased in recent years as the hunts have expanded. There are three main sources of subsidy: the National Subsidy for the Nishin Maru research whaling programme (JARPA) in Antarctica, a commissioning fee for the coastal research whaling fleet off Japan, and a recently added budget supplement to cover costs involved in dealing with recent protest activities surrounding the JARPA hunt.

In 2009, WDC, in conjunction with WWF commissioned a study of the economics of the Japanese whaling industry. The report notes similar use of taxpayer funds by Japan. For example, during the 2008-09 season, the Japanese whaling industry, needed US$12 million in taxpayer money just to break even. Overall, Japanese subsidies for whaling amount to US$164 million since 1988.

So why does Japan whale?

The expansion of Japan’s hunts is clearly not motivated by a growing market for the meat. Japan currently sells around 7,500 tons of edible whale meat annually from ‘scientific’ hunts, small whale and dolphin hunts and ‘bycatch’. Demand continues to fall and consumption of whale meat per person has dropped from about 2,000 grams in 1967 to about 50 grams in 2005. Early in 2009, shops in Japan had to reduce whale meat prices by half to move stockpiles; more than 4,000 tonnes of frozen whale meat was still in storage at the close of 2009.

The dramatic increase in whaling conducted beyond the IWC’s control has led several members of the Commission to argue that the moratorium should be lifted and commercial quotas set within a management regime operated by the IWC. However, the Commission has not been able to agree any management scheme capable of controlling whaling or detecting and punishing infractions, and the problem remains that Article VIII still provides a loophole to top up quotas or take additional species even if commercial whaling is legal again.


Working to gain a majority of votes in the IWC

Minkw whale on Japanese factory shipIn order to get what it wants at the IWC, in recent years, Japan has been actively recruiting a number of developing countries with no genuine interest in whaling to join the IWC and vote in its favour, against the ban on commercial whaling. Currently some of these countries no longer respond to Japan´s interests . Officials in Japan and some target countries acknowledge publicly and privately that Japan uses development aid as an incentive to join the IWC and vote in its favour. With the accession of Cambodia as the 70th IWC member just before the IWC meeting in the Caribbean in June 2006, the balance of power previously held by the anti-whaling nations finally tipped and the pro-whaling countries held over 50% of the votes. They wasted no time adopting the St Kitts declaration, which included the statement that the moratorium “is no longer required”.

The membership of the IWC has continued to grow, and as of March, 2012 there are 89 members, evenly divided between those in favour of whaling and those against. Overturning the moratorium will take a three quarters majority vote of the IWC. The pro-whaling nations do not have that power, but the risk remains that a deal will be brokered to exchange the moratorium for some concessions by Japan on its scientific whaling and to rescue the IWC from a hostile takeover. WDC has opposed all of the deals proposed in recent years. As long as the right to conduct Scientific Whaling remains in the treaty, there is no incentive for Japan to comply, nor is there a mechanism to force it to. Furthermore, if whaling resumes, it is likely that CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which bans international commercial trade in whale products in deference to the IWC, will permit trade to resume. And, most importantly, both history and current practice show that whaling can never be sustainable, controllable or humane.

A new deal for Japan?

Since 2007, the IWC has been working on a “peace process” aimed at calming the increasingly fractious annual meetings, and bringing commercial whaling back under the Commission’s control. A new proposal was discussed at the annual meeting in 2010. Its basic premise was a ‘cooling off’ period of ten years during which the moratorium would be suspended, and all nations currently whaling (including under the subsistence exemption) could continue to hunt, although at lower than current levels for Norway, Iceland and Japan.

The proponents of the deal hoped that, at the end of ten years of reduced but legal whaling, the IWC will be better able to work on its long term reform. Without exception, conservation NGOs oppose the package, calling it a plan to “save whaling, not whales”. WDC and our NGO colleagues have identified loopholes that would allow whaling by Japan or other nations to increase under objection or special permit, the proposal’s inability to prevent ongoing international trade in whale products, and its acceptance of Japan’s whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. We were also deeply concerned about the lack of a sound scientific basis for setting quotas, and question awarding a decade-long quota for all subsistence hunts. The fate of the proposal is now 'on ice' as no agreement could be reached. However, the 'deal' is a constant threat and some governments may wish to see it return in years to come despite the fact that whaling is collapsing around the globe.

Japan has also been working on new applications for whale products. This is detailed in the WDC Report "Reinventing the Whale".

Latest whaling update

In 2010/2011 Japan killed some 445 whales. In its self-allocated Antarctic hunt between December 2010 and February 2011 (Japan hunts over the southern summer season) Japan took 173 whales (2 fin and 171 minke whales). In the North Pacific in its coastal hunt, Japan killed 105 minke whales between April and October. In the North Pacific in its pelagic hunt Japan killed 167 whales between Jun and August (consisting of 3 sperm, 100 sei, 50 Bryde's and 14 minke whales).

In mid-2011 it was estimated that the Japanese Government's stockpile of whale meat could have reached 6,025 tons, higher than the previous record of 5,969 tons set in April 2006.

Reports by the Japanese based Dolphin and Whale Action Network indicates that in 2012, despite a hugely reduced catch because of the actions of Sea Shepherd and disruption by the tsunami, the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) was only able to sell a small amount of prime meat products from its commercial hunt in the North Pacific. Of 1211.9 tons of whale meat that were sent to the public auctions which ended in March 2012, the ICR were only able to sell some 303.1 tons of whale meat. Three-quarters of the available meat, 908.8 tons, was left unsold.

The situation was further complicated when the Nissin-Maru returned from its so-called research expedition in Antarctica freshly dumping 266 minke whales and a fin whale at Oi Suisan Pier in Tokyo Bay on March 31st. Extrapolating from the amount of byproduct produced from a single whale in the past, the volume of whale meat involved is likely over 1000 tons.

Thus despite the reduced hunt in Antarctica, Japan is unable to sell all the whales it is killing. Its imports from Iceland have simply deceased the price, rather than the market being able to absorb more meat. It would appear that the market is growing smaller by the month.

In December 2012 the UK again stated its opposition to Japan's continued whaling, articulating what many governments around the world are feeling.

Australia takes Japan to court

In June 2010 Australia  instituted proceedings before the International Court of Justice against the Government of Japan, alleging that,

Japanese catcher boat operating in Antarctica

“Japan’s continued pursuit of a large scale programme of whaling under the Second Phase of its Japanese Whale Research Programme under Special Permit in the Antarctic (“JARPA II”) [is] in breach of obligations assumed by Japan under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (“ICRW”), as well as its other international obligations for the preservation of marine mammals and marine environment”.

Australia contended, in particular, that Japan “has breached and is continuing to breach the following obligations under the ICRW:

(a) the obligation under paragraph 10 (e) of the Schedule to the ICRW to observe in good faith the zero catch limit in relation to the killing of whales for commercial purposes; and,

(b) the obligation under paragraph 7 (b) of the Schedule to the ICRW to act in good faith to refrain from undertaking commercial whaling of humpback and fin whales in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.”

The full submission can be found at the website of the International Criminal Court.

The Court gave its judgement in march 2014 and Japan was immediately ordered to end its current Antarctic whaling programme.