Wädenswil, 20 December 2018. According to Japanese news agency Kyodo News, the Japanese government intends to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and to start commercial whaling in coastal waters. According to the agency, no commercial whaling activities are planned beyond national waters. It remains uncertain whether the Japanese government would continue or discontinue the publicly funded and highly controversial “scientific” whaling program in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. “By leaving the International Whaling Commission, the archipelagic state would seriously isolate itself and harm not only whales, but also the endeavours of the international community,” according to experts of the international marine conservation organisation OceanCare.

A spokesman for the Japanese government, in response to questions from other media, said that nothing had yet been decided and that a decision would be announced before the end of this calendar year. If the withdrawal were actually planned for 2019, the request would have to reach the IWC by 1 January.

The Japanese government, which has always been strongly advocating whaling, has been threatening to withdraw from the IWC for many years and presented a comprehensive proposal to the Commission at this year’s conference of parties in September 2018, which envisaged to resume commercial whaling. This would have overturned the global ban on whaling that has been in place since 1986. However, the IWC Member States rejected the proposal by 41 votes to 27.

Japan now appears to be serious about authorising commercial whaling in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ / up to 200 nautical miles from the coast). Meanwhile, critical voices within Japan are mounting against whaling activities.

“We now need levelheadedness and diplomacy. For years Japan has been using the threat to leave the International Whaling Commission whenever its national interests did not receive backing by majority decisions. Staying or leaving is a sovereign decision of the Japanese government, with all its consequences. We hope for intensive efforts by governments to convince Japan to stay within the IWC, but without making the mistake of irreversible concessions at the expense of the whales,” says Nicolas Entrup, Ocean Policy Expert at OceanCare.

“Cooperation and respect for existing international law is required, even if national interests do not correspond to majority decisions. Protecting whale populations from hunting worldwide is also a symbol of unified efforts to protect the marine habitats from exploitation. Any divergence would be a step backwards,” says Fabienne McLellan, Co-Director International Relations at OceanCare, commenting on the newly sparked discussion.

Background information

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was negotiated by 15 countries in 1946 and entered in force in 1948. Today there are 89 member states to the International Whaling Commission, the body which executes the convention. In 1982, after decades of intensive industrial whaling, the IWC decided to ban commercial whaling. This so-called moratorium, probably the greatest achievement in international species conservation, entered into force in 1986, saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of whales, but is to date not accepted by Norway, Iceland, and Russia.

Japan’s special permit whaling

Article VIII of the Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, drawn up in the 1940s, allows states to grant special permits for the hunting of whales for scientific purposes. This research should aim at contributing to the survival of whale species.  Japan runs two special permit whaling programmes: one – NEWREP-A – targets minke whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, the other – NEWREP-NP – minke whales and sei whales in the Northwest Pacific Ocean. Since its inception in 1987, Japan’s fishing fleet has killed more than 17,000 large whales under special permit. Nevertheless, Japan’s “scientific” whaling has produced few to no publications in peer-reviewed journals. Japan’s scientific whaling has been repeatedly criticised and condemned by scientists, governments, the International Court of Justice and the IWC itself.

Rejection of “A Way Forward” reform package

The 67th Conference of Parties to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Florianopolis, Brazil, in September 2018, saw the long-awaited debate on the package of proposals that Japan had tabled under the title “A way forward”. This controversial initiative was intended to undermine the moratorium on whaling, which has existed for more than 30 years, and to gradually allow commercial whaling again. The member states clearly rejected Japan’s proposal by 41 votes to 27. The Japanese initiative was a repeated attempt to legalise commercial whaling.