Japan's bid to resume commercial whaling sets stage for fierce debate

Japan will open a new bid to resume commercial whaling operations, as well as demand major reforms to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), at a global conference in Brazil next week.

Tokyo claims that the IWC has become dysfunctional after not living up to its initial mandate in 1946 to find a balance between preserving whale stocks and allowing the “orderly development” of the whaling industry.

Japan’s proposals already have received fierce opposition, setting the stage for a showdown at the annual commission meeting beginning Monday in Florianópolis, Brazil, which Japan’s representative will chair.

“We have to rescue the IWC before it collapses,” Hideko ­Moronuki, senior fisheries negotiator in the Fisheries Agency in Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said in an interview.

Faced with collapsing whale stocks, the IWC agreed to a moratorium on commercial whaling from 1986, a move credited with saving several species from imminent extinction.

But Japan, Iceland and Norway have continued to hunt whales. Japan justifies its annual hunt in the name of scientific research, which it says is necessary to evaluate global populations of whale species.

In March 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s Antarctic hunt had no scientific basis. Wildlife groups say it is a thinly veiled attempt to keep the industry alive, making sure boats, skills and a market for whale meat are maintained.

Unhappy with the moratorium, Japan has been threatening to pull out of the IWC since 2007. But Moronuki said Japan would rather seek changes within the organization.

Japan wants permission to hunt Antarctic minke whales, common minke whales, Bryde’s whales and Sei whales, he said, citing IWC population estimates in the tens of thousands for three of the species and of more than 500,000 for the Antarctic minke. The IWC rejected Japan’s last request to resume a small-scale hunt in 2014.

It also wants to form a new Sustainable Whaling Committee that would recommend commercial catch limits, and move to a system in which proposals can be passed by simple majority vote rather than the current three-quarters majority.

With the support of many smaller island and coastal nations — some of which benefit from significant financial aid from Japan — that reform could be enough for Japan to get its way.

But Australia’s government has already condemned the proposals, saying that it is “steadfastly opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling” and that it “vehemently opposes” any attempts to undermine a global moratorium.

In a new report, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the Animal Welfare Institute said that Japan, Norway and Iceland had killed 38,539 whales since the moratorium took effect, more than 22,000 killed by Japanese boats alone.

Clare Perry, the EIA’s ocean campaigns leader, said any resumption of commercial whaling would be “a massive victory for rogue whalers” who have defied the international ban and “an absolute disaster” for the world’s whales.

“Many whale species have not yet recovered from massive overhunting in the past and are also facing a wide array of mounting existential threats ranging from climate change to marine pollution by chemical, plastics and noise,” she said.

In May, Japan touched off outrage after reporting that its whaling fleet had killed 122 pregnant minke whales in the Southern Ocean last winter.

It will face more criticism at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in October, after the organization’s secretariat investigated its Sei whale hunt and questioned whether the convention was being broken.

The EIA’s Perry rejected the idea that the convention needed to adhere to its original goals, arguing that global attitudes have changed.

“Ideas have evolved over time,” she said. “The fact is, most of the world is opposed to commercial whaling. It’s not necessary and it’s never been sustainable.”

Some defenders of whale hunting accuse the West of hypocrisy for condemning Japan while engaging in large-scale factory farming, where animals often live and die in horrendous conditions.

Moronuki said the United States is guilty of a double standard by allowing native communities in Alaska to continue whaling while not wanting Japan to do so, even though whaling is a tradition in some communities in Japan.

“All animals are equal,” he added. “Some say whales are intelligent, but I hear that some scientists found that other animals like cows and horses, they are as intelligent as whales. So you must be aware that we cannot draw the line between animals: ‘They should not be killed because they are intelligent, but others, they are not so intelligent, they should be killed.’ “

Perry rejected that argument.

“Whether whales are sentient or not, they are very difficult to count. They are long-lived, slow-breeding animals. It’s very hard to know if you are depleting the population, and if you do deplete the population, it takes a long time to recover.”

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