What does Japan’s whaling announcement actually mean?

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Minke whale killed on 16 December 2001 within the Australian Whale Sanctuary (Source: Greenpeace photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, 2001)

Simon Black discusses the ramifications of Japan's decision to resume commercial whale hunts and the sordid history of the whaling industry, marked by greed, which has almost destroyed entire species.

OVER THE CHRISTMAS BREAK, while most people were busy with festivities and family gatherings, Japan quietly announced it would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial hunts in 2019.

While the timing was widely condemned as “sneaky” and was no doubt intended to limit the backlash from the international community – which it was moderately successful in doing – it was not entirely unexpected.

Japan has repeatedly threatened to leave the IWC and this move comes barely three months after a Tokyo-led proposal to lift a 32-year ban on commercial whaling was rejected by the intergovernmental regulatory body.

Specifically, Japan has stated it will recommence commercial whaling in its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) while ending the so-called “scientific whaling” expeditions into the Southern Ocean.

In truth, Japan never really stopped commercial whaling — it simply hid it beneath the “scientific whaling” fig leaf. This announcement marks the end of a charade running several decades, with whaling operations withdrawal solely to their own waters.

Reaction to this news has been mixed. While some groups have rightly declared this a victory in the campaign to end the slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean, there are still reasons to be concerned.

In addition to the declaration being completely out of step with the international community, some experts have raised concerns it could encourage other countries, such as Russia or South Korea, who already “accidentally” hunt whales, to follow suit.

More concerning still is the stress this hunt will continue to put on whale populations, which have not yet recovered from being hunted to the very brink of extinction, prior to the start of the ban on commercial whaling in the early 1980s.

During the bad old days of commercial whaling, species such as the Blue Whale were hunted down from populations as large as a quarter-of-am-illion to mere thousands.

Due to the slow speed with which whales breed, with some only calving every two to three years in the best case, those numbers are not rebounding quickly.

In fact, scientists have stated endangered whales won't even reach half of their pre-hunting numbers by the end of the century.

It gets worse.

These models do not take into account climate-related factors such as 'ocean acidity, declining sea ice and warming surface temperatures' or other threats such as the increase ocean plastics. These factors saw well-publicised whale deaths in both Indonesia and Thailand last year with these massive creatures washing up full of so many plastic bags they starved to death. And humpback whales are dying off at an alarming rate in California, independent of whaling activities.

The sad reality is this. When the ban on whaling was introduced in the 1980s the biggest threat to a whale in the Southern Ocean was being speared by a harpoon — now that is just one threat of many.

The brittle and precarious balance of increasingly stretched ecosystems is an issue you are going to hear a lot about in the years to come.

Ecosystems depleted of their resiliency on multiple fronts and pushed to breaking point become so brittle that events that previously have only been damaging turn devastating.

We’ve seen it recently with the mass fish die off in the Murray-Darling, while in Florida, heatwaves and agricultural runoff saw the worst outbreak of toxic “red tide” algae since a natural disaster a decade ago.

If we continue to push these systems to their absolute brink we will see more events like this. Instead of an oil spill or other such disaster wreaking havoc on a system, the natural cycles of drought, heat and cold, or a hundred other natural fluctuations could be enough.

Push something to breaking point and eventually, it will break.

Japan’s decision to keep their hunting at home in their EEZ will not help with this. While we will no longer see the dramatic confrontations at sea that have characterised the “scientific whaling” hunts by Japan, these magnificent creatures can migrate hundreds and, in some cases, thousands, of kilometres. Endangered sei whales are seen off the tip of Tasmania and are capable of travelling far enough north to be well within range of the harpoon fleets.

This is the same species of endangered whale that Japan has killed more than 1,400 of during their “scientific whaling”, with meat sales found to be in violation of international law.

What’s all the more disturbing is when you realise these decisions are sometimes made for seemingly illogical reasons. Whale meat is now deeply unpopular around the world and is not even particularly well-liked in Japan. As far back as 2012, more than 75 per cent of whale meat from Japan's hunt was unable to be sold despite repeated attempts to auction it. The hunts cost taxpayers as much as $10 million a year in subsidies and polls conducted in that time showed almost 90 per cent of people had not eaten whale meat in the last calendar year.

Whales are no longer considered food by most of the world, in much the same way tiger, lion and elephant were once considered fair game, but are no longer.

When you are talking about a species whose numbers are so precarious the authors of an Australian study last year stated: '[the death of] a couple of hundred individuals hunted a year over a number of years has been shown to significantly affect populations and significantly impact their numbers', there is no excuse for any commercial whaling whatsoever.

The history of whaling is a sordid one, which has almost destroyed entire species by an industry marked by greed. You only need to look at scandals in the last year such as pregnant whales being killed, and rare and endangered species being regularly killed.

Commercial whaling – in all its forms – must be permanently brought to an end. The sooner Japan, as well as other countries, such as Iceland and Norway, realise this the better.

Simon Black is the senior media campaigner for Greenpeace Australia Pacific. You can follow Simon on Twitter @mrsimblaa.

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