Did Japan’s Whale Hunt Just Get Harpooned?

The International Whaling Commission finds no scientific justification for the country’s plan to kill nearly 4,000 of the marine mammals.
(Photo: Reuters)
Apr 14, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Japan wants to kill nearly 4,000 minke whales in the Southern Ocean over the next 12 years, but an expert panel convened by the International Whaling Commission has shot down the country’s latest proposal to conduct the hunt.

Japan insists that its annual Antarctic whale hunt is undertaken for “scientific research,” but on Monday, an IWC-appointed panel rejected that claim. “The current proposal does not demonstrate the need for lethal sampling to achieve those objectives,” the panel stated in a report.

The IWC did not respond to an interview request. But Patrick Ramage, global whale program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the panel report “essentially blackballed” Japan’s efforts.

“The independent panel is publically saying there’s no scientific justification for continuing to kill whales,” Ramage said. “The new Japanese proposal strongly resembles the previous program, and it’s hard to see how they proceed defying both the world court and the IWC by sending their fleet back to Antarctica.”

“It’s a real stumbling block for the Japanese, who hosted the meeting of the independent panel and were confidently predicting their proposal would pass muster,” Ramage added.

Last March, Japan announced it would suspend its annual hunt in the Antarctic for one year after the International Court of Justice ruled that the country’s whaling program was not scientific and therefore in violation of the IWC’s global commercial whaling moratorium, established in 1986. Japan agreed to conduct only nonlethal research in the 2014–2015 season.

But in November, Japan submitted a new proposal to the IWC to harpoon 330 minke whales annually, beginning in late 2015 and lasting 12 years. That’s in addition to the nearly 10,000 whales it killed in the past, purportedly for scientific reasons.

Japan says it wants to collect more data on the Antarctic minke whale population—in case the moratorium is ever lifted—and to study the Antarctic marine ecosystem. But the IWC panel concluded that the Japanese proposal lacked clear scientific objectives and contained “insufficient information” to complete a full review.

The IWC’s Scientific Committee will review the expert panel report and the Japanese proposal at its next meeting, beginning May 18 in San Diego.

“The panel made 29 recommendations to Japan so that they can work to further validate the method of lethal survey and the sample size,” Fuji Hayashi, a spokesperson for the Japanese embassy in Washington, wrote in an email.

“Yesterday, Japan submitted its preliminary responses and supplemental documents to the IWC Scientific Committee,” Hayashi said. “We will do further analysis to address the recommendations and will provide and explain our findings at the annual meeting of the IWC Scientific Committee.”

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is scheduled to visit Washington and meet with President Obama on April 28.

“It certainly ups the ante for Japanese decision makers,” Ramage said. “Now the issue of whaling, which the Japanese foreign ministry would rather not be talking about or defending, is very much on the agenda again.”

If the IWC Scientific Committee adopts the expert panel report, what then?

“We might quite possibly see the Japanese whaling fleet and their harpoons return to the Southern Ocean this year,” Astrid Fuchs, whaling program manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, wrote in an email. “It will, in our view, be in contempt of the court. What the international community then chooses to do, we shall have to see.”