In light of Japan’s recent decision to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and return to commercial whaling, it’s fair to wonder when, why, and how the IWC was first established, and what keeps leading us back to this debate.
Whales have been hunted for over 4,000 years, and along with the Norwegians, Japan was one of the first cultures to do so. Industrial whaling started with the Basque community in France and Spain in the 11th century. Why hunt whales? There was incredibly efficient use of the whales killed – every part of the body was used – meat, skin, blubber and organs were eaten, baleen (the keratinous strands that non-toothed whales use to feed) was used to weave baskets, build roofs, and make fishing line. Bones were used for tools. Over time the most commercially demanded product from whaling became whale oil, which was used in lamps. cars, trains, and even soap. In World War One, there was a massive demand for explosives made using glycerine from whale oil.
For centuries whaling was widely practised on a global scale. At first it was a low-tech, highly dangerous endeavour, with whales often destroying boats, and whalers falling overboard, drowning, or succumbing to illness over long periods at sea. However, the advent of steam powered ships and the invention of the explosive harpoon made whaling significantly safer for the whalers, and far more deadly for the whales. Massive factory ships were built that could catch, butcher, and process whales without them ever being brought to dry land.
By the 1930s, around 50,000 whales were being killed every year. It is estimated that 2.9 million whales were killed the 20th century. Several whale species were hunted to near-extinction. So where did the IWC come in?
In the 1920s the international community began to recognise that whale species were being overexploited, and in the ‘30s the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics was established to track catches. The IWC was set up by International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in 1946, but not in the way that we think of it today. The IWC was responsible for setting quotas, but as it was run by whaling countries, it was essentially an official sanction of commercial whaling for decades (unsurprisingly this pattern has repeated itself every time the fishing industry has been left responsible for setting its own quotas).
The political tide began to turn. Hunting of blue and humpback whales was banned globally in 1966, and hunting of fin whales in the Southern Hemisphere was banned in 1976. Factory ship whaling was banned for all species other than minke whales in 1979. The IWC agreed the moratorium on commercial whaling for which it is best known in 1986. This was initially thought, by pro-whaling countries at least, to be a temporary stop-gap until sustainable quotas were agreed upon.
International laws are challenging to enforce, and the moratorium has been subject to sustained objections from Norway, Iceland, and Japan. Norway officially objected to the ban, legally allowing its commercial whaling operations to continue. However, the demand for whale meat and products is massively decreasing, and fewer and fewer young people are being attracted into the whaling industry.
Although Iceland did not formally object to the moratorium, it continued to whale under the ‘scientific whaling’ loophole, which allows whales to be killed and taken for research purposes (the meat can then be sold on the grounds that it is the ‘easiest’ way to get rid of the body). In 1992, Iceland withdrew from the IWC. In 2002 it rejoined, but continued commercial whaling having lodged a reservation to the moratorium (a legally disputed move), and in June of 2018 it came under extreme criticism for killing a rare blue/fin hybrid whale. Public support for whaling has plummeted, and now 34% of the population actively oppose it (up from 18% in the past five years).
It seems likely that whaling is on its way out in Norway and Iceland – so what has just happened in Japan? Japan initially objected to the moratorium in 1986 and continued commercial whaling for another year, until under pressure from the USA they signed the Murazawa-Baldridge deal, and became bound to the global ban. In real terms, this meant the Japanese Government started whaling through the ‘scientific’ whaling loophole in Antarctica and the North Pacific. Although Japan has been taken to the International Court of Justice by Australia over its Antarctic hunt, and was ruled against in 2014, it has largely ignored international law and international pressure to stop whaling. Japan’s ‘scientific’ whaling programme has gone from a thinly disguised commercial whaling operation to an undisguised one. Japan continues to argue that the consumption of whale meat is part of their culture and they should be allowed to pursue it in a sustainable way, although in reality whale consumption peaked in World War Two when it was the only source of meat for many coastal communities, and has now decreased significantly, with several major supermarkets ceasing to stock whale meat due to lack of demand.
Now they have officially announced that they are withdrawing from the IWC and will no longer be bound by the moratorium. Currently they claim this will stop the ‘scientific’ hunt in Antarctica, and that commercial whaling will only take place in Japanese territorial waters. They say they will comply with catch limits based on IWC calculations. Japan will still be bound by international law, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This means they will have to join another international body for whale ‘conservation, management, and study’, likely the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (Nammco), a group of pro-whaling nations (Norway, Iceland, Greenland the the Faroe Islands) who are frustrated with the IWC.
It is easy to dismiss commercial whaling as a moral absolute, but academically speaking, would a sustainable whale fishery be so bad? The issue is that we have shown very little ability to exploit any wild population, particularly marine species, in a sustainable way. Like the rest of our living planet, whales face a whole new host of threats today – ship strikes, anthropogenic noise, chemical pollution, global warming, overfishing of their food, destruction of their habitats, and, of course, plastics. As large, slow-growing, late-maturing species, they are naturally slow to recover from any decline in their population, even if they weren’t contending with a litany of obstacles. Furthermore, can any exploitation of a still-diminished population be sustainable?
In 2017 an Australian study indicated that blue, fin, and southern right whales will not have recovered to even half of their pre-whaling population size by 2100. Humpbacks now have reached around 32% of their pre-whaling population, while the quicker breeding minke whales are expected to have recovered by 2050. Many whale populations are still on the brink of extinction. Humans have already decimated these species and we are not exactly helping in their recovery. Insistence on maintaining ‘culture’ rings hollow when most people even in pro-whaling countries don’t seem to want to eat whale meat. It’s hard not to feel like there is some game being played here on a larger political scale, and whaling is just a pawn, not the prize.
With the current state of the natural world this is irresponsible at best, and we should all be applying pressure wherever we can to stop or limit commercial whaling – not just in Japan but in all pro-whaling countries. In a world where we seem to be moving backwards as often as we move forward, we cannot be complacent about protecting what we care about, and marine species need all the help they can get. We should target our own governments and especially events like the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics, which are soon to be held in Japan and have historically been able to carry massive political weight. However, if there is a silver lining, most whale products have been completely replaced by modern alternatives (and their trade is illegal in much of the world anyway), and no one is exactly desperate for the chance to feast on whale meat again. The simple economics of supply and demand may succeed where activism fails.