Each year, Japanese whalers haul hundreds of harpooned whales aboard their giant 8,145-ton vessel, the Nisshin Maru. And for decades, they’ve killed most of these whales in the open Antarctic seas, under the guise of performing scientific “research.”
But now Japan is changing course, in a curious way.
On Wednesday Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced that the nation will retreat from killing whales in the Antarctic waters. Instead, the Japanese have dropped the pretense of hunting whales for research and say they will strictly hunt whales in waters around Japan — mostly for the whales’ meat.
“It’s a bit of a strange kind of move,” Carl Safina, a marine ecologist at Stonybrook University, said in an interview, noting that Japan still intends to hunt whales, but just not in certain whale-rich waters.
While this leaves the Southern Hemisphere free of whaling for the first time in centuries — a true conservation victory — the Japanese continued killing of whales still has dubious legal merit.
Following Wednesday’s announcement, Japan will soon be leaving the United Nation’s International Whaling Commission — the world body in charge of whale conservation. This commission halted commercial whaling over 30 years ago, in 1986. Since then, nearly every nation in the world has stopped commercial whaling.
But now Japan will be largely on its own — a sort of whaling renegade unbound from the global agreement and still killing whales — though in its own waters.
“Now, they’re blatantly criminal operations,” Paul Watson, a captain and president of the anti-poaching organization Sea Shepherd, said in an interview. Watson has repeatedly led campaigns to intervene during Japanese whaling operations on the open ocean.
“Basically they will be pirates,” added Carolina Castro, a Sea Shepherd media manager, over email.
Yet, by leaving the International Whaling Commission, Japan will no longer be beholden to the commission’s conservation rules, regardless of the reality that most every nation in the world has stopped hunting whales.
But even if Japan did remain bound to the whaling conservation agreement, there’s no world power that would to stop Japan from whaling in its own waters, specifically Japan’s “Exclusive Economic Zone,” which stretches 200 miles from its coast.
“The trouble with all the conservation agreements is that there’s no enforcement mechanism for almost any of them,” said Safina.
Iceland and Norway — the other two whaling nations — also kill whales with impunity. No other government intervenes. Rather, nations can impose economic sanctions, if they wanted. For instance, the U.S. Magnuson‐Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 states that foreign nations should be punished for engaging in illegal fishing.
While commercial whaling likely won’t ever be stopped by another government, it now exists as a taboo, a fringe, antiquated practice that eventually might die out on its own.
“There’s not any real need for anything from a whale in modern industrialized civilization,” said Safina. “Our respect for life on the planet should make it seem appalling to kill the grandest living things that have ever existed.”
The good news
For those seeking to protect whales — whose numbers were vastly diminished in the 20th Century — the Japanese decision is welcome news.
Whaling will continue, but there will be less of it.
“The silver lining is they don’t feel like killing whales much anymore — they’re only going to kill them in Japan’s territorial waters,” said Safina. “I don’t find this to be very upsetting.”
“They’ve retreated to their own economic zone,” said Watson. “It’s wonderful news from my point of view.”
Although Japan’s greater motives aren’t known, there’s potential that they intend to wind down their whaling operations, possibly for good. After all, the business, with diminished demand, is not likely turning much of a profit — if any profit.
“It hasn’t made money for decades,” noted Watson.
Rather, Watson argues modern whaling is driven by political influence. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is from a whaling district, he said, and also noted that both a strong political board and whaling union keep the practice afloat.
“It’s all political — it doesn’t make any economic sense,” said Watson. “There are thousands of tons of refrigerated whale meat that can’t be sold.”
“Maybe they are sick of doing it”
Safina wonders if the recent move is to help the Japanese “save face.” In other words, perhaps the Japanese want to gradually get out of the whaling, but don’t want to appear weak or influenced.
“Maybe they are sick of doing it,” said Safina. “But they can’t just stop because that would make it look like they bowed to pressure, and they are obsessed with saving face — the Japan government is obsessed with it.”
Whatever Japan’s longer-term aims, the retreat of hunting will be of benefit to whales, which will now be free from hunting in the entire Southern Hemisphere.
And more whales are of considerable value to the ocean’s food web, which benefits from a process called the whale pump: Whales fertilize the surface waters with large plumes of feces, replenishing the surface waters and as consequence, making them more productive.
“There’s never too many whales,” said Watson.