After 67 Years of Protection, Japan's Whales Suddenly Face a Fatal Threat

A sad day for the beloved ocean mammals.

Since 1946, the International Whaling Commission has protected whales across the planet, many of them endangered. The whale populations in the waters surrounding Japan have long benefited from the IWC’s regulations on hunting, but those days are coming to an end. After mounting tensions with the IWC, Japan announced Wednesday that it will withdraw from the organization to begin commercial whaling in 2019.

Japan has been a member of the IWC since 1951, and up until now has been one of the largest financial contributors to the group, second only to the United States. It had recently pushed for a loosening of international restrictions on commercial whaling, including agreed-upon quotas to ensure that the hunting was done in a sustainable manner.

Beginning in July 2019, Japanese vessels will hunt whales in its territorial waters and economic zones. At the same time, Japan will vacate the Southern Ocean near Antartica, which the nation has exploited under an IWC scientific research loophole. The country’s ongoing minke whale hunt in the plentiful whaling grounds around Antarctica will be its last.

“In its long history, Japan has used whales not only as a source of protein but also for a variety of other purposes. Engagement in whaling has been supporting local communities, and thereby developed the life and culture of using whales,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Whale Meat
Whale meat at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.

Since 1986, the IWC has enforced a moratorium on all commercial whaling, but Japan has exploited a loophole that allows for the harvesting of whales for scientific research purposes. Under this program, Japanese whaling vessels have hunted hundreds of whales each year, allegedly for scientific research. The international environmental community has long called this explanation a fiction, as the whale meat inevitably ends up in Japanese restaurants and grocery stores.

In 2017, Japan’s annual Antarctic hunt yielded over 300 minke whales. As Gizmodo pointed out in 2016, only two peer-reviewed scientific papers have come from Japan’s scientific whaling program between 2005 and 2014, during which time Japanese vessels harvested 3,600 minke whales.

A minke whale breaches in the Pacific Ocean.
Minke whales are among those no longer protected by the IWC.

Fortune reported on Thursday that Japanese whalers are not happy with the new plan, suggesting that they preferred the Southern Ocean as a hunting ground. And though Japan is leaving the IWC, it will calculate its sustainable harvest levels with the assistance of the IWC.

When the Japanese commercial industry opens in 2019, Japan will join Norway and Iceland as the world’s three commercial whaling nations, though Norway and Iceland are still members of the IWC that still engage in commercial whaling in defiance of the Commission.

The IWC has issued whale hunting permits to indigenous groups in the US, permits that only apply to subsistence hunting, not commercial harvesting. But Norway, Iceland, and Japan all maintain that the IWC’s moratorium prevents them from participating in longstanding cultural practices. And while Iceland and Norway have remained members of the IWC, Japan has now made its stance official.

“Regrettably, we have reached a decision that it is impossible in the IWC to seek the coexistence of states with different views,” said Suga.