By Jessica Chang
In December of last year, Japan announced it was going to pull out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a controversial and widely-criticized decision. While it may certainly seem an ill-advised and environmentally-damaging act, Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC is quite reasonable if you look at the facts.
First, you need to understand that for years, under the IWC, Japan promised not to go commercially whaling in the Southern Ocean (around Antarctica). In practice, Japan sends out vessels every summer to capture whales for “research purposes” – which becomes meat that ends up on restaurant tables. In the past two years alone, Japan has caught 666 whales for “research.” Now that Japan has pulled out of the IWC, however, it has sworn off the hunting of whales in the Southern Ocean, allowing the cetacean population to rebound to healthy levels.
While demand for whale meat has dived, the reason that Japan is pulling out of the IWC is because of political pressure from small towns on the coast of Japan that have ancient whaling traditions. For these towns, whaling is an essential part of their culture, religion, and daily lives. While the IWC allows many indigenous peoples to hunt whales for food, such as the Bequia and Makah, it does not allow any such exceptions to these Japanese coastal towns and has been unwilling to compromise with the Japanese government. Under the IWC, many Japanese coastal towns have resorted to hunting non-protected cetaceans, such as dolphins and other small species of whales. Now that the Japanese government is allowing whaling in its territorial waters, it’s likely that they will return to hunting minkes and other formerly IWC-protected whales.
This is not necessarily bad for whale populations in the Pacific and Southern Oceans; Patrick Ramage, a whaling specialist at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth, MA, says that this may even benefit them as the Japanese will no longer hunt for whales in the Southern Ocean. And because demand for meat is so low, he says that market forces will ensure that the number of whales caught in Japan’s territorial waters will stay low. Furthermore, this withdrawal actually yields benefits in the foreign policy arena, as well. Japan’s whaling in the Southern Ocean was a (small) snag in its relations with Australia and New Zealand. Now that it’s ceased whaling in those waters, foreign policy experts predict that the three countries will be able to better cooperate in the face of a domineering China.