AWI Statement on Japan’s Decision to Withdraw from the International Whaling Commission

Photo by thanyarat07
Photo by thanyarat07

Washington, DC—On December 28, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, issued a written statement announcing the government’s decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in order “to resume commercial whaling”1 within its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Provided that Japan has complied with the notification provisions of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) and does not withdraw its notice before it takes effect, Japan’s 65-year membership in the IWC will end on June 30.2

Secretary Suga’s statement indicated that Japan would discontinue whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. AWI welcomes Japan permanently ending this heavily subsidized industrial-scale whaling in Antarctica, where many species of whales have endured more than a century of almost nonstop commercial exploitation. We hope that Secretary Suga’s statement that Japan’s “whaling will be conducted in accordance with international law” signals Japan’s acceptance that its landing of sei whales taken on the high seas of the North Pacific violates the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)3 and that this hunt will also end.

AWI is extremely disappointed that Japan intends to continue commercial whaling in its territorial waters and EEZ. Commercial whaling has no place in the 21st century. It is economically, politically, legally and scientifically indefensible. Such hunts aren’t necessary to provide food or other resources for humans, and are inhumane and impossible to regulate, especially when conducted far from shore.

There are a number of concerns about the whale hunts in the North Pacific. In 2017, for example, an IWC expert panel recommended that Japan postpone its North Pacific hunt, in part due to its failure to consider bycatch and other anthropogenic threats to the species targeted by Japan.4 Japan has a poor record of ensuring a humane death for hunted whales, evidenced in particular by its use of nonexploding (cold) harpoons as a backup killing method, in defiance of both IWC rules and expert advice.5 Centuries of overexploitation of whales have demonstrated that commercial whaling operations must be subject to strict supervision and control provisions, such as international observers on whaling vessels, to ensure hunters’ compliance with catch limits and other regulations. Japan strongly resisted the IWC’s adoption of such measures and is unlikely to implement them independently.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea requires countries to cooperate on the conservation of whales "through the appropriate international organizations for their conservation, management and study" (see Article 65).6 The IWC is the only appropriate international organization to conserve, manage and study whales. If Japan leaves the IWC, AWI believes that it must cooperate with the commission and its scientific committee sufficiently to ensure that the IWC’s conservation and management mandate can be fulfilled.

For years, Japan has strongly opposed the IWC’s growing conservation mandate. For example, the country opposes the creation of whale sanctuaries and voted against the IWC’s recent decision to increase coordination with other international agreements for the conservation of cetaceans.7 Although Japan’s withdrawal from the commission would reduce the IWC’s income by more than £124,000 (approximately US$158,000) a year, it would also enable the IWC to further advance its important work addressing the myriad threats to cetaceans and their habitat, including bycatch, vessel strikes, marine pollution, climate change and ocean noise. The IWC could also expand its efforts to understand the vital ecological functions that whales contribute to marine ecosystems.

Japan’s decision ends the charade of special permit (scientific) whaling on the high seas. AWI is deeply disappointed, however, that Japan is rejecting international governance of an increasingly imperiled marine environment. We are also concerned that Japan’s departure from the IWC will set a dangerous precedent for the two other commercial whaling nations (Norway and Iceland), and the dozens of other countries traditionally aligned with Japan that remain IWC members.8 

The IWC has prohibited the hunting of great whales for commercial purposes since 1986, a decision known as “the moratorium.”9 However, the ICRW allows contracting governments to issue “special permits” to hunt whales for scientific research and dispose of the edible products as they see fit.10 Japan, which has been a party to the ICRW since 1951, first exploited the special permit provision in 1954 and has regularly used it since 1987, killing more than 17,000 whales from five species under the guise of research and selling hundreds of thousands of metric tons of their meat domestically.

The global community recognizes this as commercial whaling in disguise and deems it unacceptable. The IWC has clearly stated that the special permit provision “is not intended to be exploited in order to provide whale meat for commercial purposes and shall not be so used.”11 The commission has adopted at least 25 resolutions calling on Japan to stop its special permit whaling.12 The United States has also concluded four times that Japan’s special permit whaling programs diminish the effectiveness of the IWC’s conservation efforts and thereby merit repercussions under U.S. law. 13 Additionally, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in 2014 that Japan’s special permit whaling in Antarctica was not for the purpose of science and should cease.14 

In response to the ICJ ruling, Japan made changes to its so-called research whaling programs. It currently authorizes two programs under the special permit provision: An industrial whaling fleet (a factory ship and four catcher vessels) hunts up to 333 southern hemisphere minke whales annually in Antarctica (an area declared a whale sanctuary by the IWC in 1994)15 and up to 134 sei whales and 43 common minke whales in the North Pacific. These programs continue to be condemned by the majority of cetacean scientists, who consider them unnecessary and of dubious scientific merit or value.

Since 2017, Japan has used federal funds to subsidize the entire cost of its hunting and research, along with the processing, distribution and sale of frozen meat through commercial wholesalers. Japan also permits five small vessels from coastal whaling communities to hunt up to 127 minke whales a year from three land stations—Abashiri, Ayukawa and Kushiro—in a coastal component of the North Pacific research program. Fresh meat from these whales is sold locally. 

Unclear future
Secretary Suga’s statement leaves Japan’s future intentions unclear. It announces that Japan will “cease the take of whales in the Antarctic Ocean/the Southern Hemisphere” and “will conduct commercial whaling within Japan's territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone,” but it does not specify the number of whales or species to be taken. Hideki Moronuki, Alternate IWC Commissioner for Japan and Director for Fisheries Negotiations at the Fisheries Agency of Japan, declined to provide an estimate to the press but indicated that initial quotas may be modest because Japan still has to figure out if or how commercial whaling can be a viable industry.16 Indeed, Moronuki’s statement does not explain whether the “new” commercial whaling operations will receive government support and subsidies, or if they are expected to be economically self-sustainable.

Although the government has not confirmed target species, hunting methods or locations, two maps published in the Japanese media—identified as being “prepared by the government” or citing “Fisheries Agency data”—reference six coastal whaling locations and offshore hunting regions for sei, minke and Bryde’s whales.” If this information is correct, coastal hunting of minke whales will be allowed from the three current land stations, as well as from three other communities involved in the current shore-based hunting. Sei and Bryde’s whales and additional minke whales will be killed farther offshore but within Japan’s EEZ, presumably by the factory fleet operating from the whaling port of Shimonoseki.

Secretary Suga has pledged that whaling will be “conducted in accordance with international law and within the catch limits calculated in accordance with the method adopted by the IWC to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources.” But the extent of Japan’s future relationship with the IWC remains uncertain. According to Suga, Japan will “continue to contribute to the science-based sustainable management of whale resources” in “coordination with international organizations, such as through its engagement with the IWC as an observer.”

1. Article XI of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) provides that any contracting government may withdraw from this convention on June 30 of any year by giving notice on or before January 1 of the same year to the depository government.

2. Japan submitted a previous notice to withdraw from the ICRW in 1959 but withdrew it before it took effect. Similarly, Denmark, on behalf of Greenland (2013), submitted a notice to withdraw but rescinded it before it took effect.


4. IWC (2017) Report of the Expert Panel Workshop on the Proposed Research Plan for the New Scientific Whaling Research Programme in the Western North Pacific (NEWREP-NP).

5. The IWC has prohibited the use of cold harpoons (versus the exploding harpoon, which is meant to shorten time to death) since 1980. Japan holds an objection exempting it from this provision in respect to the killing of minke whales for commercial purposes and still uses cold harpoons as a backup (“secondary”) killing method for North Pacific minke, sei and Bryde’s whales. (Schedule paragraph 6 and footnote). Experts, including the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, have recommended that Japan develop and use a more effective backup killing method (NAMMCO/24/12, Annex1).

6. Japan became a signatory to UNCLOS in 1983 and ratified the convention in 1996. It also ratified the UNCLOS-associated agreement for the implementation of the provisions of the convention of December 10, 1982, relating to the conservation and management of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks in 2006. See:; see also:

7. RESOLUTION 2018-5 The Florianópolis Declaration on the Role of the International Whaling Commission in the Conservation and Management of Whales in the 21st Century.

8. Iceland hunts fin and minke whales under a contested reservation to the moratorium, while Norway hunts minke whales under an objection to it.

9. Paragraph 10(e) of the Schedule to the ICRW

10. Article VIII of the ICRW

11. IWC2003- 2 Resolution on Whaling Under Special Permit.

12. Fisher S (2016) Japanese Small Type Coastal Whaling. Front. Mar. Sci. 3:121. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2016.00121

13. Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen’s Protective Act 22 U.S.C. §1978, as amended Pub. L. No. 95-376, 92 Stat. 714 (Sept. 18, 1978).


15. Japan lodged an objection exempting it from this provision.


17. “Response tepid to commercial whaling restart in Japan waters.” The Asahi Shimbun, December 27, 2018.

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