Commercial Whaling Ban Holds—For Now

James Owen
for National Geographic News
June 24, 2005
Japan's efforts to relax whaling restrictions were voted down this week
at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Yet
the possible return of commercial whaling across the world's oceans
still worries conservationists.

At the IWC gathering in Ulsan, Korea, which ended today, Japan failed in its bid to lift a ban on commercial whaling. But IWC members agreed to meet again to reconsider the issue with a view to ending the 19-year moratorium.

In the wake this latest impasse, some groups have called for the IWC to be reformed.

Among those voicing criticism was Rune Frøvik, secretary of the High North Alliance, which represents fishers and whalers in Nordic countries. "It's just conflict all the time," he told the BBC. "They say they want to continue with a process, but in fact they are blocking progress."

New Zealand's conservation minister likened conflict within the IWC to a "cold war," with opposing sides—conservationists and whalers—locked in an ideological struggle.

But neutral nations say the way forward may be a long-proposed scheme whereby commercial whaling would be permitted, but only under strict rules.

Despite setbacks for pro-whaling nations, such as Japan and Norway, they managed to undermine further the IWC: The countries indicated they will press ahead with plans to increase the number of whales killed under the rubric of scientific research programs.

Japan signaled its intention to double its annual scientific catch of minke whales to about 900. It also aims to hunt 50 fin and humpback whales—species conservationists say are threatened.

The commission criticized those plans and shot down Japan's bid to allow communities on its northern Pacific coast to hunt 150 minke whales a year. It also rejected Japan's its push to abolish the whale sanctuary in what many refer to as the Southern Ocean—the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Ocean regions that surround Antarctica.

Whaling Ban

The International Whaling Commission was formed in 1946 to regulate whaling and to conserve the world's largest living animals.

In 1982, with many whale populations close to extinction following centuries of exploitation, IWC member nations agreed to a ban on all commercial whaling.

While the ban remains in effect, Japan, Norway, Iceland, and Greenland continue to hunt limited numbers of whales. The mammals are killed either for local consumption or scientific purposes.

Since 1994 the IWC has sought to negotiate a sustainable commercial whaling strategy to replace the ban.

Pro-whaling nations say it's time for their proposal, known as the Revised Management Scheme (RMS), to be implemented. Japan has threatened to quit the IWC if the plan isn't adopted.

Anti-whaling groups, such as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society based in Chippenham, England, oppose the RMS. Groups say the scheme wouldn't detect, prevent, or penalize whaling violations and would jeopardize endangered whale populations.

"Those that believe whaling can be brought under control have had their eyes closed to the past century," said Niki Entrup of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Entrup added that the whaling that has occurred, despite the current moratorium, shows that countries like Japan do not respect the decisions of the IWC.

Scientific Catch

Currently Japan kills about 400 whales a year under the rubric of scientific research. Such programs don't fall within IWC jurisdiction.

Norway has also set a quota to kill nearly 800 minke whales this summer. The nation is also considering scientific whaling of other species in future.

Wildlife groups say most of the whales hunted under the aegis of scientific research end up being sold as food. Conservationists add that researchers don't need to kill a whale to study it.

Non-lethal biopsy darts can potentially tell researchers as much about a whale's age, sex, diet, reproductive status, and genetics as a carcass can, argues Sue Lieberman, director the global species program for the conservation nonprofit the World Wildlife Fund.

"I think what this is about is the commercial market for whale meat in Japan," she said.

However, Japan argues that a total ban on commercial hunting is no longer justified. The nation says whale populations have recovered in the past two decades and that sustainable harvests are now possible.

Japan notes that the IWC's scientific committee agrees that humpback whale numbers are increasing by around 10 percent each year. The committee's most recent estimate also suggests that as many as a million minke whales live around Antarctica alone.

Surveys by the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, based in Tromso, Norway, suggest minke whale numbers are either stable or increasing in all areas of the North Atlantic. The commission says current whaling quotas present no threat to the species.

Joji Morishita, head of the Japanese IWC delegation, says the Revised Management Scheme, together with monitoring and inspection, would ensure regulated, sustainable whaling. "Science and law should prevail over emotions," he said.

Japan's Fisheries Ministry accuses nations opposed to any commercial whaling of "cultural imperialism." Officials ask how Australia and the United States would take to being told they couldn't hunt kangaroos or deer.

As a cheap source of protein, whale meat became a staple in Japan after World War II. Authorities are currently promoting whale meat to younger generations who are more used to Western-style foods.

In the western coastal region of Wakayama, Japan, around 280 schools are being supplied with whale meat. Education officials say they are trying to rekindle a centuries-old culinary tradition. And this week a Japanese fast-food chain, Lucky Pierrot, announced that it's putting whale burgers on its menus.

Don't Miss a Discovery
Sign up for our free newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top news by e-mail (see sample).

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.