Japan Harpoons the International Whaling Commission

14 Jul 2011

During the 63rd Plenary Session of the International Whaling Commission, Japan has demonstrated its ability to debilitate initiatives for the protection of whales and distort debates on environmental threats to cetaceans. This year, a loophole in the rules of the IWC has been subtly exploited by Japanese jurists to push aside a proposed sanctuary in the South Atlantic.

Brazil and Argentina are persistent. The idea of a sanctuary in the South Atlantic was initiated in 1998 and has been regularly proposed to the IWC for approval since 2001. These waters, from the coasts of South America to the coasts of Africa, are home to populations of humpback whales and southern right whales, among others. The population of southern right whales, exploited for centuries, has declined from 55,000-70,000 individuals to 7,500 individuals today. Since 2003, there has been an increase in strandings of calves in their first year, which could seriously threaten this population (of the 366 strandings recorded since 2003, 90% of them were calves). Initially, only five countries were against the proposed sanctuary: Palau, Russia, Iceland, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Cameroon. Japan waited until the last moment to intervene “on behalf of many countries that support the sustainable whaling.” Even though Japan stated that it was seeking a consensus and was against any hostile action, they instead abandoned the decision-making process: “If the pro-whaling countries leave the room, the meeting will not have a quorum, and a vote on the proposed sanctuary will not be possible.” Brazil and Argentina have refused to yield to the threat and have not withdrawn their proposal. The delegations of Japan, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Africa, and the Caribbean, among others, walked out of the commission, leaving the rest of the Commission up in the air about the rules of procedure. Eight hours later, it was decided that these exchanges would be written up in the Presidential Annual Report according to negotiated terms, and that the sanctuary would be the first item on the agenda at the next plenary session. In the meantime, the procedural rules need to be clarified.

Yesterday, the Japanese delegation did not submit a new request for coastal whaling quotas. In any case, what interest would Japan have in hunting whales which are contaminated by radioactivity from Fukushima Daiichi? The IWC Scientific Committee emphasised that a follow-up of the radiological effects on cetacean populations is necessary, especially as common prey such as sand lances are highly contaminated (1). Japan, expressed its “willingness to consider the possibility” to carry out a complete follow-up of long-term radionuclide impacts. Because ocean currents spread radioactivity, the North Pacific will be impacted by this pollution for decades. Japan probably has an interest in venturing further afield for its coastal whaling, in non-contaminated zones. Japan has to choose within the next few months between renouncing whaling within the Antarctic sanctuary or updating their old whaling fleet, which does not conform to the new regulations of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) (2). However, Japan could decide to deploy its substandard whaling fleet and continue whaling within another sanctuary by exploiting another legal loophole.

Debris in the ocean

In addition to debris released daily in the world’s ocean, the debris from the tsunami seriously harms cetaceans in many ways, mainly by entangling, drowning, suffocation and contamination by human waste. A working group was put in place in order to research and compile available information on the ingestion of plastic litter by cetaceans, including microplastics.

Europe infiltrated

Denmark is at odds with the opinions of the other 24 European member countries of the IWC. During plenary, the Danish delegation stated that the participation of NGOs “would not be to the benefit of all”. Indeed, an increase in NGO participation would not favour Denmark, as NGOs have thorough knowledge of Greenland’s commercial whaling carried out under the guise of aboriginal whaling (209 minke whales, humpback whales and fin whales killed in 2010). On Europe’s doorstep is the pro-whaling country of Iceland, with 208 whales killed in 2010 and nearly 800 tons of meat exported to Japan.

Ship strikes

Ship strikes may seriously injure or kill whales outright. Since 1877, there have been 539 recorded cases of ship strikes. However, a large number of incidents go unreported or unnoticed, and thus the recorded figure misrepresents the true scale of the problem. This is a factor which cannot be neglected when considering endangered species or species of which hunting or trade are prohibited. In most cases, the collisions are not felt by the crews. Examination of logbooks has shown that a cruise ship in the United States carried a whale carcass on its bow for 1,100 km. The increasing speed of ships, concurrently to the increase in noise and vibration generated by underwater machinery and propulsion devices, increase the risk of collision. The working group recommends that IWC identifies the most problematic areas by overlaying maps of whale population densities and ship routes and to consider the application of mitigation measures such as speed reductions.

(1) Impacts on whales from radioactive inputs and debris following the tsunami, July 8th 2011

(2) Whales, Nagoya Blabla, October 29th 2010


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