Japan Receives Pass for Illegal Whale Meat Trade at CITES Standing Committee Meeting

Photo of Sei Whale, from Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Geneva—The Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) missed an opportunity this week to put an end to Japan’s massive domestic sales of meat from sei whales, which violate international regulations. Instead, the committee deferred a decision on the legality of the program until late 2018.

CITES is an international agreement between governments that seeks to ensure that the survival of certain species set forth in the CITES appendices is not compromised by international trade. Japan’s longstanding North Pacific whaling program authorizes the killing of endangered sei whales on the high seas. In 2017, Japan killed 134 sei whales. This “introduction from the sea” falls within CITES’ definition of international commercial trade that is prohibited for imperiled Appendix I-listed species such as sei whales.

Although some specimens, including the whales’ eyes, testes and ovaries, are preserved for scientific research, the vast majority of each whale’s body—about 12 tonnes—is frozen and vacuum-sealed in preparation to be sold for human consumption in Japan.

In 2016, the CITES Secretariat began an investigation into whether these actions by Japan violate the CITES convention. At the 2017 meeting, the Secretariat staff reported back to the Standing Committee on the responses received. Although several parties, including African and Latin American nations, pushed for urgent action at this meeting, the chair concluded that the committee would give Japan another year to provide responses to the original questions and asked Japan to invite the Secretariat to conduct a fact-finding mission.

Conservation organizations, present at the meeting, provided the following reactions to the delayed decision:

Sue Fisher of the Animal Welfare Institute expressed disappointment that requests by Niger, Senegal and Guatemala for a stronger, and more urgent approach were rejected by the chair. She said, “Japan has already had more than a year to demonstrate that it is in compliance with the treaty. The fact is that it cannot; its use of sei whale meat is clearly commercial. Now another 134 whales will die for Japan to be given ‘due process.’”

Astrid Fuchs of WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) said, “This decision is very disappointing. The meat of more than 1,000 endangered whales has been sold on the Japanese market, contrary to Japan’s obligations under CITES. Many member countries, including those within the European Union, asked for this matter to be treated with urgency and emphasized that we are dealing with heavy trade in an endangered species. It is inconceivable that Japan got a pass and the opportunity to kill another 134 sei whales before CITES will make a decision on the issue.” 

Matt Collis of International Fund for Animal Welfare said, “Japan has been importing and selling sei whale products since 2002; this is a persistent and intentional violation of CITES rules. There’s a disturbing double standard developing at CITES, where governments appear willing to turn a blind eye to a developed nation openly trading in a banned species, while at the same time throwing the book at developing countries without the capacity to implement CITES provisions.”

Mark Simmonds of Humane Society International said, “CITES failed to stand up for its rules. Japan’s domestic market sales of thousands of tonnes of sei whale products each year are not for the purpose of science and the whale products sold are not the by-products of research. Securing whale meat is the primary motivation for the hunt and it is brought into Japan to maintain and further build a commercial market. With today’s decision, this sham will continue.”

Erica Lyman of International Environmental Law Project said, “Japan is clearly acting in violation of CITES. The law is clear. A mission to Japan unfortunately defers a decision on this issue, but ensures that the CITES Parties will have the facts they need to make the right decision when they meet again. Upholding the integrity of CITES to maintain its reputation as one of the strongest and most effective environmental agreements is critical.”

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