Why Japan’s exit from international whaling treaty may actually benefit whales

Science | AAAS | 1/10/2019 | Staff
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TOKYO—Japan’s 26 December 2018 announcement that it will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial whaling in its own waters triggered fierce criticism around the world. U.K. environment secretary Michael Gove was “extremely disappointed.” Greenpeace called the decision “out of step with the international community” and its timing in the middle of the holiday season “sneaky.”

But some conservationists say the hand wringers are missing the point. What matters most is that Japan has decided “to stop large-scale whaling” on the high seas under the mantle of scientific research, says Justin Cooke, a marine population assessment specialist at the Center for Ecosystem Management Studies in Emmendingen, Germany. Given the declining appetite for whale meat, Japan is unlikely to start to catch many more whales in its own waters than it already does, he adds: “There won’t be much change on the ground.”

Patrick - Ramage - Specialist - International - Fund

Patrick Ramage, a whaling specialist at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, agrees. “It’s good news for whales,” he says—and also for IWC, which can finally end its “food fights over whaling” and focus on other issues in whale conservation.

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Japan has never hidden its hope of resuming commercial whaling, banned under an IWC moratorium since 1986. In the meantime, it has used a clause in the IWC treaty that allows members to capture whales for scientific purposes—and sell the meat. The Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) here has primarily harvested minke whales, with minor catches of sei whales, Bryde’s whales, and a few other species. Japanese scientists claimed whale autopsies were essential to determine the animals’ diet and age, among other things, but critics dismissed the research as a fig leaf for commercial whaling and said it produced few meaningful...
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