Japan to Resume Whaling Next Year, Defying International Whaling Commission

Japan plans to restart its scientific whaling program next year, despite an IWC resolution imposing stricter regulations.
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A minke whale—one of a species targeted by Japan as part of its scientific whaling program—swims in the ocean around Antarctica near McMurdo Sound.

Japan announced Thursday that it will restart its scientific whaling program next year in response to a new resolution adopted by the International Whaling Commission placing stricter regulations on scientific whaling.

This new nonbinding resolution—proposed by New Zealand—adopts the criteria used by the UN's International Court of Justice earlier this year when it ruled that Japan's current whaling program was not scientific. (See "Japan Halts Whaling Program in Response to International Court Ruling.")

The new guidelines establish criteria for the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) scientific committee to consider when it reviews whaling plans submitted by member countries. The criteria include consideration of whether a program needs to lethally sample whales to obtain data, how many whales a scientific program will take, and whether the number to be taken is justified.

At this week's IWC meeting, Japan's representatives stated the country's intention to revamp its scientific program based on "international law and scientific evidence." They planned to submit their proposed program to the IWC's scientific committee this fall, with the aim of conducting scientific whaling next year.

If Japan were to abide by the new regulations, the country would have to submit a plan to the scientific committee next year, delaying the start of its whaling activities until 2016, says Leigh Henry, a senior policy adviser for wildlife conservation with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C.

Japan's intention to go ahead with a revised scientific whaling program next year basically signals that the country won't abide by the IWC resolution, she adds.

Exceptions to a Rule

A loophole in the 1986 IWC ban on commercial whaling allowed for lethal take of large and medium-size whales—such as humpbacks and minke whales—for scientific purposes. It's a loophole that Japan had taken advantage of until recently.

The ban doesn't cover smaller whales like pilot whales, or their relatives, including dolphins and porpoises. (See "Pictures: Scenes From Taiji Dolphin Roundup in Japan.")

Iceland and Norway currently take whales for commercial purposes despite the ban. However, the two countries whale within their own waters, otherwise known as exclusive economic zones, Henry says. Japan is the only country conducting whaling in international waters, including in a whale sanctuary in the ocean off the Antarctic coast, she adds. (See "Japan's Commercial Whaling Efforts Should Resume, Says Prime Minister.")

Other countries, including Greenland and the United States, take whales, but only as part of indigenous subsistence hunts. Those hunts are allowed by IWC rules and are conducted under strict regulations.

This latest resolution was an attempt to bring whaling back under the IWC's control, says Henry, "because right now, the only whaling that really has been under the control of the IWC has been aboriginal subsistence whaling."

Although this development in the controversy over Japan's scientific whaling activities is disappointing, Henry is hopeful. The resolution passed with a majority vote, which indicates progress with respect to the international community, she says. It is something that IWC members can point to and say, "This is the will of the majority of the committee, and you should follow it."

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