Although the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, the Japanese soon found a loophole in the law. This allowed them to kill a quota of whales each year in the name of research. However, while whaling records show that just 950 whales were killed globally for research between 1950 and 1987, Japan alone has been responsible for the deaths of 10,000 whales since it started exploiting the moratorium loophole in 1986.
Theoretically, Japan killed the whales for vital research that would allow scientists to better understand the species studied — and how to conserve them. And yet, in the years since the moratorium, Japanese scientists failed to produce even one peer-reviewed paper to justify their whaling activity. Instead, the whale meat was sold in restaurants and supermarkets, prompting anti-whaling nations to rightly decry Japan’s “research program” as a commercial operation “cloaked in the lab coat of science.”
In 2010, Australia bought a case to the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ), demanding that Japan cease its Antarctic whaling program with immediate effect. Four years later, the court issued a verdict agreeing that there was no scientific justification for Japan’s whaling activity – and with it, the long-awaited ban. The future looked bright for Antarctica’s whales, and conservationists rejoiced at the prospect of the first killing-free season since the end of World War II.
Japan did sheathe its harpoons for the 2014/2015 season, but launched a non-lethal expedition to Antarctica instead. The purpose of this expedition was to inform a revised whaling program, which was submitted to the IWC in April 2015. Known as NEWREP-A, the new program detailed plans for revised hunting quotas, ones that no longer targeted humpback and endangered fin whales, but focused on minke whales instead.
The quotas stipulate a target catch of 333 minkes per year between 2015 and 2027, adding up to a total of 3,996 whales. Moreover, the quotas are accumulative, meaning that if the fleet should fail to catch 333 whales one year, the outstanding number will be added to the following year’s quota. NEWREP-A also allows for an expanded area of “research,” a phrase that equates to a larger hunting ground for the Japanese whaling ships.
According to a report issued by an IWC expert’s panel in April, the new program “does not demonstrate the need for lethal sampling,” meaning that the Japanese failed to provide enough information to determine whether or not killing minkes is necessary for research purposes. Australian scientists led by Bill de la Mare of the Australian Antarctic Division argue that NEWREP-A is no different to the original whaling program banned by the ICJ last year.
In June, the IWC’s Scientific Committee echoed the sentiments of the expert panel, stating that it could not determine whether lethal research methods were necessary for promoting whale stock management and conservation. In a press conference held after their ruling, Japan’s representative to the IWC, Joji Morishita, was undeterred, saying that “we of course intend to resume whaling again this year.” Japan does not need the approval of the IWC to move forward with NEWREP-A.
Japan has long claimed that whale meat is an important part of its traditional food culture, and yet increasing awareness of the meat’s high toxicity levels has seen a decrease in domestic demand. As the economic incentive for whale killing wanes, it seems likely that Japan’s apparent commitment to whale “research” will fade correspondingly, but whether that will affect this year’s whaling efforts remains to be seen. With the December season just around the corner, we’ll soon know whether or not Japan returns to the killing fields.