The age-old tradition of whaling has just been reinstated in Japan after being banned for more than 30 years. Japanese fishermen completed their first commercial whaling trip earlier this month, and while they didn’t quite meet their quota of 227, they did manage to get close with 223 whales by the end of the three-month hunting period. However, not everyone is happy about the country’s decision to restore whaling.
Whaling History and Endangered Species
Whaling has been a tradition of some countries as well as a main source of protein. Whales were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th and 20th century, but in the 1960s the old practice of spearing whales was replaced with more efficient methods, which made whales much easier to catch. After WWII, when food was scarce, whale became the biggest source of meat in Japan.
The dwindling number of whales as well as the terrible way of hunting them led to the creation of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). In 1986, the group put a hunting moratorium on the whales to allow their numbers to recover, and all members, including Japan, agreed – if somewhat reluctantly. Countries that had regularly practice whaling, such as Japan, Iceland, and Norway, assumed the ban would only be temporary, but so far it has lasted 31 years. The moratorium allows for exceptions, such as for indigenous peoples whose custom and source of food depend on the practice, and for scientific studies.
Present Day Whaling
This was a loophole Japan could use, and since 1987, the country has continued to hunt whales in the name of scientific research. It is estimated that between 200 and 1,200 whales were killed each year by Japanese hunters.
In July 2019, Japan left the IWC so that it could officially bring back its whaling tradition. Now that they are no longer claiming the research exception, hunting cannot be done in international waters, such as near Antarctica, where whalers were previously getting their quotas.
But this still doesn’t appease the conservationists, and there is concern whether the country could be taken to court. Article 65 of the agreement says that “states shall co-operate with a view to the conservation [of whales]” and “shall in particular work through the appropriate international organizations for their conservation, management and study.”
Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University, told BBC News that “Within its 12 mile coastal waters, Japan can do whatever it wants.”
When hunting for research purposes, last year’s cap was 332, which was higher than what the first commercial hunt just returned with that included 52 mink whales, 150 Bryde’s whales, and 25 sei whales. Of the three, only sei whales are still classified as endangered; however, their numbers are increasing. Since Japan dropped out of the IWC and will have to stick to their own waters, this may also cut down on the amount of whales caught.