Japan Sells Sei Whale Meat in Violation of CITES

Having failed to persuade the International Whaling Commission (IWC) at its September 2018 meeting to overturn its longstanding ban on commercial whaling, Japan left the IWC on June 30, 2019, after nearly seven decades of membership. On July 1, Japan announced commercial whaling quotas authorizing the annual slaughter of 25 sei whales, 187 Bryde’s whales, and 171 minke whales. 

The IWC’s underlying treaty, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, is not the only international agreement of which Japan and its whaling interests have run afoul, however. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) prohibits international trade in parts and products of all large whales for commercial purposes. International trade includes landing specimens caught on the high seas (beyond the jurisdiction of any country). Since 2002, Japan has hunted more than 1,500 sei whales on the high seas of the North Pacific under the guise of research and sold more than 18,000 metric tons of their meat and blubber on its domestic market. 

AWI and its allies prepared a legal analysis of the trade for the October 2018 meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, and AWI attended the meeting to press its case. The committee ruled that this commercial use of sei whales did indeed violate the treaty and instructed Japan to take remedial measures. Japan responded by ending the high seas component of its sei whale hunt (reducing the take of sei whales from 134 to 25). It has continued, however, to allow the sale of thousands of tons of illegally imported meat. 

At the 71st meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in August 2019, AWI presented new information on the extent of this market. Our surveys show that illegally landed sei whale products are sold by around 75 percent of Japanese whale meat vendors and are widely available online. Sei whale is also served by 40 percent of Tokyo restaurants that offer whale meat.

In response, most Standing Committee members insisted that Japan should confiscate and dispose of remaining stocks of sei whale products. The next step is for Japan to report on its management of sei meat and blubber to the Standing Committee at its 2020 meeting. AWI will continue to argue that Japan will not be compliant with CITES until it confiscates and disposes of all sei whale products landed before 2019.

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