Whaling in Japan

On 26th December 2018, Japan stated its intention to restart commercial whaling in 2019. In recent years, Japan has carried out hunting in the North Pacific and Antarctica.

For many years Japan's whalers have exploited a loophole in the founding treaty of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which allows whaling for 'scientific research'. In March 2014, the UN's International Court of Justice ordered it to stop its whaling programme in Antarctica. However, on the 27th Nov 2015 Japan announced that it would resume so-called scientific whaling in Antarctica despite the ICJ ruling and now says it is going to re-start commercial whaling. Japan is ignoring world opinion and conventions.

Current Whaling

In the 2017/18 Antarctic season again took 333 Antarctic minke whales and in the North Pacific summer season 134 sei and 43 common minke whales offshore. 

Japanese whalers also continue to hunt common minke, Bryde's and sei whale in the North Pacific.

Japan announced that the whalers intend to hunt minke, Bryde's and sei whales when resuming commercial whaling in July 2019. It is not yet clear how many whales of each species will be killed per season.

The ICJ judgement

As of the 31st March 2014, Japanese Antarctic whaling programme was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

In a damning ruling the Court 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 finhumpback 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 under paragraph 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 

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.

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

‘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 and will be bound until it leaves the IWC  to pursue its commercial whaling programme as it has promised to do

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.

In recent years Japan allocated annual research quotas for 127 minke whales in coastal hunts, along with 134 sei and 43 minke whales in the North Pacific hunts. The whalers also had a yearly quota of 333 Antarctic minke whales for the Southern Ocean.

Small type coastal whaling

The 1982 moratorium decision resulted in officially all commercial whaling for large whales (as regulated by the IWC) in Japan ending in 1985/86. Japan claimed in 1986 to have four ‘Small Type Coastal Whaling’ communities, at Monbetsu-Abashiri and Kushro in Hokkaido, and Ayukawa, in Miyagi Prefecture, and Taiji. Today Japan claims that the four communities are Abashiri, Ayukawa, Wada and Taiji. For years, Japan has falsely claimed that these towns have a longstanding history of, and dependence on, hunting minke whales in Small Type Whaling (STW) operations in their coastal waters – a type of whaling characterized by the use of small boats (under 50 tons), hunting small whales on day trips. Japan also claims that the IWC’s ban on minke whaling directly caused cultural disintegration and financial hardship in these towns; and that only the IWC could alleviate their problems, by allowing them to conduct a minke whaling operation in their coastal waters.

The current ‘STCW’ operating in Japan take Baird’s Beaked Whales, Risso’s dolphins and pilot whales, and so have not actually stopped their whaling operations. Indeed, minke whales are also taken as part of the JARPN ‘scientific’ whaling programme and there has been a continuing hunt by the commercial companies involved in the ‘coastal’ whaling from before and during the IWC moratorium.

As a reflection of the terminology accepted by the IWC at the time, Japan argued for the ‘nutritional, subsistence and cultural needs of small-type coastal whaling in the local community’ should be recognised, and even submitted its application to the IWC ASW sub-committee. Japan noted that, ‘The Japanese have utilised whale meat as one of the principal sources of protein since ancient times’. In 1987, Japan was arguing for ‘Subsistence whaling’ with respect to Japan’s coastal whaling industry, a theme it has continued right up until now. Japan has been very clear that it believes that its whaling is no different to that of Denmark’s overseas territory, Greenland. 

In 2014, Japan submitted “IWC/65/09 Proposal and background for schedule amendment to permit the catching of minke whales from the Okhotsk Sea-West Pacific stock by small-type coastal whaling vessels”, which was defeated. 

For the 2016 meeting Japan didn't submit a new proposal but instead submitted a "discussion document" on a way forward for the IWC in the hope to facilitate its ambitions to overturn the moratorium and bring back commercial whaling. 

In 2018 Japan submitted a proposal aimed at lifting the moratorium on commercial whaling and allow for commercial catch quotas under the IWC.

“Bycatch” whaling

In 2009, published DNA analyses of whale meat from Japanese markets indicated 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.

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. 

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-whaling

Working to gain a majority of votes in the IWC

In 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 has used 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 September 2016 there were 88 members, divided between those in favour of whaling and those against. However, overturning the moratorium would take a three quarters majority vote of the IWC and the pro-whaling nations have not wielded that kind of power and have been frustrated in attempts to overturn the ban on commercial whaling, most recently at IWC in Brazil in 2018.  Inability to broker a deal for whaling, has undoubtedly led towards  Japan’s stated aim to leave the IWC and restart commercial whaling.

Furthermore, if and when commercial 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, could permit trade to resume. And, most importantly, both history and current practice show that whaling can never be sustainable, controllable or humane.

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