Japanese Whaling

Sei whales - Photo by Christin Khan NOAA

Japan has had a history of small scale coastal whaling for centuries, possibly even as far back as the Jomon period (10,000-300 BC). Large scale whaling likely started around the late 17th century, and by the middle of the 20th century Japan—along with its European and American counterparts—was a leading commercial whaler. Japan was not an original member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but joined in 1951 and has remained a member ever since.

When the IWC agreed to the commercial whaling moratorium in 1982, Japan—like Norway—registered an objection. Under pressure from the United States, it withdrew this objection in 1985 and resumed “special permit whaling” (for scientific research) in 1987.

Today, Japan has two research programs: the largest is the Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Antarctic (previously JARPA, now the New Scientific Research Program in the Antarctic (NEWREP-A)). The Southern Ocean was declared a whale sanctuary by the IWC in 1994 but Japan objected to this designation, allowing it to engage in “scientific research whaling” there. It also conducts scientific whaling in the North Pacific (formerly JARPN, now under the New Scientific Research Program in the North Pacific (NEWREP-NP), which has both a coastal and pelagic component.)

While the coastal component of the North Pacific program is conducted by small whaling boats that operate up to 50 miles from shore and return to port daily, both pelagic whaling programs use a fleet of catcher boats to hunt whales and a factory ship to process them at sea. The whaling fleet spends months at sea, eventually delivering the frozen meat and blubber to wholesalers for sale in shops and fish markets or for sale at a discount to school lunch programs and other government-funded marketing schemes. Some biological samples, including eyeballs, ovaries, and stomach contents, as well as biopsy samples from live whales, are taken for analysis to justify the claim that the hunt is a scientific research program.

In 2013, Australia, supported by New Zealand, challenged the legality of Japan’s Antarctic program (then JARPA II) at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), claiming that the science was a ruse to circumvent the commercial whaling moratorium. In considering the legitimacy of the science conducted, the court reviewed the scale and timeframe of the lethal research, how sample sizes were selected, and the extent to which the program published its results and coordinated with other research projects. In its 2014 ruling, it concluded that the whaling was “not for the purposes of scientific research” and therefore violated the ICRW. The ICJ ordered Japan to immediately cease its whaling program in the Antarctic.

Japan complied with the order to stop hunting in the Antarctic but revised and relaunched the program as NEWREP-A in 2015, targeting fewer minke whales and no longer taking fin whales. It also revised JARPN-II in 2016, ending its previous hunt of Bryde’s and sperm whales but increasing its minke and sei whale hunt in the North Pacific under NEWREP-NP. Although the research objectives of both new programs are slightly different from their predecessors, the programs clearly meet a commercial objective. Indeed, in 2017, upon passage of a new act of parliament that fully funds its whaling programs from government funds, Japanese Parliamentarians and Fisheries Agency officials publicly acknowledged that scientific whaling is Japan’s means to secure an eventual return to commercial whaling at the IWCM and expressed hope that Japan assuming the chairmanship of the IWC in 2016 would facilitate that debate.

The IWC’s Scientific Committee provides comments on special permit research proposals and reviews the results of the research. Although it repeatedly states that Japan’s “lethal sampling” of whales is not justified (the information sought can be obtained by nonlethal means), the IWC has no means to prevent the hunts taking place or to enforce the ICJ judgment.

Since the moratorium took effect, Japanese whalers have killed more than 12,000 whales under the guise of scientific research. In its 2017/18 season, Japan may kill up to 333 minke whales in Antarctica, and 174 minke whales and 134 sei whales in the North Pacific.

Small Type Coastal Whaling

Japan’s use of special permit whaling to keep its pelagic fleet active and provide thousands of tons of whale meat a year for commercial sale is infamous, but it also permits small-scale, near-shore whaling operations known as “Small Type Coastal Whaling” (STCW), which represents a direct threat to the commercial whaling moratorium.

The IWC does not regulate, or even define, STCW. It is a Japanese category of whaling, conducted in a handful of coastal towns, that is characterized by the species caught (minke, bottlenose, beaked, pilot, and killer whales) and the small size (maximum 48 tons) and short range of the vessels used. When the commercial whaling moratorium was agreed to in 1982, whaling in these towns had to cease, causing—Japan claims—widespread economic and social distress that endures today.

Japan’s response was—and still is—to ask the IWC to grant an emergency relief quota for its STWC operations, claiming that denial of its request would have the same damaging impact on STCW communities as it would on indigenous people whose whaling to meet longstanding nutritional, cultural, and subsistence needs has been recognized by the IWC. The IWC was not persuaded by this, or any of the 16 subsequent attempts by Japan to secure an “interim” or “emergency relief” quota of minke whales, although the IWC has accepted that harm occurred as a result of the moratorium.

The main obstacle to Japan’s proposals is that the nature and purpose of STCW is inherently commercial, so, by authorizing it, the IWC would overturn the moratorium. Japan long disputed the commerciality of the operation, claiming that it is closer to “cultural whaling.” But in recent years, Japan has accepted that STCW has clear commercial elements. There are also concerns about the sustainability of the proposed hunt: Minke whales in the North Pacific comprise at least two and probably more genetically distinct stocks, including a depleted population of minke whales known as J stock. This stock mixes at certain times of the year with the more populous O stock and is vulnerable to high levels of by-catch by Japan, South Korea, and North Korea in addition to Japan’s special permit whaling in the region.

In 2014, Japan changed tactics at the IWC, seeking an STCW quota as an exemption to—rather than an alternative to—the moratorium; it proposed a new paragraph 10(f) in the Schedule that would apply “notwithstanding” the current ban and establish a quota of 17 minke whales a year over a five-year block. The proposal was defeated with only 19 votes in favour, 39 votes against, and two abstentions, and Japan did not again try to seek approval of an STCW quota at the 2016 meeting. However, Japan is expected to seek an exception to the moratorium at the 2018 IWC meeting, with its commissioner as chair of the IWC. For more information see: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fmars.2016.00121/full.

Last Updated: January 2018