Japan’s Sei Whale Trade Declared Illegal Under CITES

In an unprecedented reprimand, the Standing Committee to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has determined that Japan’s use of thousands of tons of meat from endangered sei whales—the third largest species on the planet—is illegal under the treaty. Most of the evidence and the underlying legal analysis were provided by AWI and our partner organizations.

The decision, made at the 70th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, held in Sochi, Russia, in early October, was a resounding rebuke to Japan. Eighteen countries declared the use of the meat to be primarily commercial and a violation of CITES. Only the Russian Federation supported Japan.

The sei whale is listed on Appendix I of CITES, which means that international trade in its parts or products for primarily commercial purposes is prohibited. Japan kills up to 134 sei whales a year for so-called scientific research conducted on the high seas. Under CITES rules, landing these whales in Japan is termed “introduction from the sea,” which qualifies as international trade. After collecting a few biological specimens from each whale, Japan processes and packages thousands of tons of sei whale meat and blubber for commercial sale.

Japan must now present a plan by February 1, 2019, showing how it intends to restore compliance. The committee has warned Japan that if it fails to provide a satisfactory response, punitive measures will be considered. These can include an embargo on trade with Japan in other CITES-listed species by the other 182 CITES parties.

Several other issues of keen interest to AWI were discussed at the Standing Committee meeting—convened in preparation of the upcoming 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP18), to be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, next year. One such issue is illegal trade in the endangered totoaba fish (whose swim bladder is used in traditional medicines). This trade is a primary driver in pushing the vaquita porpoise toward imminent extinction—when totoaba are caught with gillnets in the Gulf of California, vaquita are killed as bycatch. AWI and allies were able to ensure that this issue would continue to be subject to CITES review at CoP18, and that Mexico, the United States, and China (as origin, transit, and destination countries for totoaba bladders) would have to submit information to the CITES secretariat about their efforts to combat this trade.

A recommendation to allow a working group on the “disposal” of confiscated CITES specimens to continue its work after CoP18 was undermined, unfortunately, by a handful of countries (including the United States) at the urging of zoological associations, but the effort to secure more humane treatment for seized live animals will continue at the meeting.

Among other important issues discussed: trade in rhino horns, ivory, Asian elephant skins, and live Asian and African elephants; trophy-hunting quotas for Appendix I species; and the role of rural communities in the CITES process. These and a number of other important wildlife trade issues, as well as a suite of new species listing proposals, will provide plenty of chances to advance wildlife conservation, secure new protection for species from unsustainable trade, and strengthen CITES at the CoP.

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