In a landmark policy shift, Japan formally announced that it would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial whaling in its territorial waters next year for the first time in more than 30 years.

Reasons of withdrawal cited by Japan

  1. With a moratorium in effect for more than 30 years, populations of endangered whale species will have had plenty of time to regenerate.
  2. ‘Fundamental differences’ among members have led the whaling commission to what it calls a dead end.
  3. Pressure from local fishermen to restart commercial whaling.

Background and Implications

  • Japan has been mulling leaving the whaling commission for some time in the past. It kills an estimated 450 whales annually.
  • Japan had proposed lifting a 32-year whaling ban when the IWC met in Brazil for its annual conference in September 2018. The proposal was rejected and criticised by the environmental organizations.
  • The country officially halted commercial whaling in 1988, complying with the Commission’s moratorium.
  • Whaling is deeply ingrained in Japanese culinary culture, dating back as far as the earliest historical era of the Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.). Whale meat also served as critical sources of protein in the post-war period as the nation grappled with poverty.
  • Having peaked in 1962 at 230,000 tons, annual consumption of whale meat has since trended steadily downward, with an average of 5,000 to 6,000 tons consumed yearly today, according to fishery ministry of Japan.
  • Japan’s withdrawal will put an end to its IWC-sanctioned whaling activity in the Antarctic Ocean, long conducted under the name of “scientific research,” in a practice widely slammed as commercial whaling in disguise.
  • However, even after its exit from the IWC, Japan will continue to attend its meetings as an observer and work toward rectifying what they called the “dysfunction” of the IWC. Japan’s continued involvement with the commission is apparently aimed at fulfilling a condition set under international law for the management of whales. Under the U.N.-designated Convention on the Law of the Sea, member states are obliged to “work through appropriate international organizations” for whaling.
  • International community urged Japan for the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures; rather than resuming commercial whaling.

The other two countries that still hunt whales commercially are Norway and Iceland.

International Whaling Commission (IWC)

  • IWC is the global body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling. Currently, it has 89 members. All members are signatories to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.  This Convention is the legal framework which established the IWC in 1946. 

Uncertainty over whale numbers led to the introduction of a ‘moratorium’ on commercial whaling in 1986.  This remains in place although the Commission continues to set catch limits for aboriginal subsistence whaling.  Today, the Commission also works to understand and address a wide range of non-whaling threats to cetaceans including entanglement, ship strike, marine debris, climate change and other environmental concerns.  

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