Even worse than the news that Japan has resumed its controversial whaling efforts, more than 200 of the minkes that were killed last week were pregnant females. The 2015/2016 season marks Japan’s reappearance on the international whaling scene, despite a ban issued by the International Court of Justice in 2014.
In theory, whaling for commercial purposes has been illegal since 1986, when the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium to allow whale populations, decimated by the industry, to recover. However, some countries, including Norway and Iceland, continued to hunt whales under an objection to the moratorium, while Japan exploited a loophole in the law that allowed for a certain quota of whales to be killed each year in the name of “scientific research.”
According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Japan has killed more than 13,000 whales since 1986, allegedly for research purposes. Despite this, the country has published just two peer-reviewed articles detailing the results of their research since 2005, while the meat from the dead whales is sold commercially to restaurants and supermarkets. Elsewhere in the world, cetacean scientists without an ulterior motive for killing whales have proved that lethal methods are not required in order to carry out research.
In light of this, Australia bought a case to the International Court of Justice in 2010, claiming that there is no scientific justification for Japan’s whaling activities. In 2014, the court ruled in favor of Australia’s claim, and Japan’s scientific research program was banned with immediate effect. The Japanese adhered to the ruling at first, and no whaling ships were sent to the Antarctic during the 2014/2015 season. Instead, the Japanese sent a scouting expedition, whose findings were used to create a revised research program.
Japan Resumes Whaling Despite Protests
The Japanese submitted the new program to the International Whaling Commission in April 2015. The commission failed to determine whether or not the program was scientifically justifiable, and the Japanese committed to resuming their whaling efforts with or without approval. The revised plan reduced total hunting quotas from 900 whales to 333 whales per year, and promised to cease targeting humpback and fin whales. Instead, the quota focused solely on minke whales, with a total catch quota of 3,996 whales over the next 12 years.
For minke whales, the revised program means very little, as the total minke catch of previous years typically amounted to between 200 and 400 whales. Under the new program, however, the Japanese intend to specifically target female whales in order to ascertain the age at which female minkes reach sexual maturity. Because whaling season coincides with the whales’ annual breeding season, 90 percent of the female whales killed this year were pregnant with the species’ future generation.
The Japanese Fisheries Agency sees no problem with this, commenting that “the number of pregnant females is consistent with previous hunts, indicating that the breeding situation of minke whales in the Antarctic is healthy.” While it is true that minke whales are the most common baleen whale and not currently considered to be at risk, the International Whaling Commission states that “there has been an appreciable decline in their estimated abundance.”
Presumably, news like this means that the continued targeting of pregnant females will only accelerate the species’ depletion.