by Amber Murakami-Fester
Whaling in Japan, which has charged the international community with high tensions for many a decade, is set to face legal contention on June 26th, when the UN International Court of Justice is slated to begin public hearings on Australia’s challenge of Japanese whaling practices. Japan, Australia alleges, is breaking a temporary international ban, or moratorium, on whaling by hunting whales for commercial purposes under the guise of scientific research. Japan contends that it still operates within the legal boundaries of the moratorium, which allows for whaling with scientific permits.
The hearing will be a crucial event for the whaling issue, which has proven to be controversial since the implementation of the moratorium by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986. The ban has since been wrapped in emotionally charged conflict and gotten sidetracked from its initial intent to conserve whale species that were in need of protection.
The moratorium was implemented by the IWC due to rising concerns in the 60s and 70s on shrinking whale populations, which had been vastly reduced by industrialized nations in the 18th and 19th centuries in a mad scramble for whale oil. Whales were in fact being killed at incredible numbers into the 1980s; the Soviet Union killed close to 340,000 whales from 1946 to 1986 according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The total number of whales killed since 1986 was less than 32,000 in 2008, indicating the success of the ban in protecting the marine mammal.
The moratorium, however, came with its own baggage of controversy that continues to roil the international community to this day. The whaling ban, some nations claimed, ignored long-standing traditions and cultures of whale hunting that dated back to prehistoric times.
Japan is perhaps the most controversial of these nations for its alleged defiance of the ban. Evidence of whale hunting activity in Japan dates back to at least 10,000 B.C., and whale meat played an important role for the country in the 1940s, when it accounted for half the source of animal protein during World War II, according to DiscoveryUK.com. Although most people in Japan do not regularly eat whale today, several small communities like Ayukawahama, a whaling town in northern Japan, still do, and it is not rare to find whale meat in large supermarkets and specialty restaurants sold as a delicacy. Japan maintains that whaling is an essential part of its culture and tradition; this tension between culture and animal rights is an essential element at the heart of the whaling controversy today.
Japan is not alone in its defense of whaling traditions. The yearly summer whale hunt in the Faroe Islands of Denmark, where hundreds of pilot whales are driven into the shore and killed, has also received intense international criticism for what many consider unnecessarily cruel deaths and an unsustainable practice. The Faroe Islands, like Japan, have a long-standing history of hunting whales dating back to the first Norse settlements on the islands. The hunt is not regulated by international whaling laws because pilot whales are considered “small cetaceans” by the IWC and are therefore not included in the moratorium.
These whaling practices have come under intense international pressure because many consider culture a flimsy excuse for illegality, irresponsible hunting and unnecessary cruelty. This tension has at times manifested in violent confrontations on the open ocean. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (a marine activist organization based in the U.S. and Australia) controversially carries out aggressive tactics on Japanese whaling ships at sea, ramming ships and hurling containers of acid and smoke bombs to prevent the whalers from catching their quarry. Sea Shepherd claims that they “operate outside the petty cultural chauvinism of the human species” in an Equality Statement on their website, and points to the alleged illegality of Japanese whaling as a basis for their attacks.
In February of this year, Sea Shepherd faced Japanese whalers in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled in favor of the Japanese, saying that Sea Shepherd has “engaged in…clear instances of violent acts for private ends,” and is “the very embodiment of piracy.” If Sea Shepherd is breaking international rules as well, their claim to be acting solely for the purpose of protecting international whaling laws becomes less credible. So if the upkeep of the law is not at the heart of Sea Shepherd’s actions, what really is the issue here?
Whaling has evidently become a highly emotional issue. Take, for example, the pilot whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Any Google search on the subject yields a series of photographs that display large amounts of blood spilled into the ocean and onto the shores during the hunt. The images aim to point out the unnecessary violence of the practice, regardless of whether it is a part of a long-standing cultural tradition or a population-sustainable practice. Violence and cruelty against animals understandably draw strong emotional responses, and these elements contribute to the violent attacks carried out by Sea Shepherd.
This emotion, however, can dilute and distract from what originally lay at the core of international whaling laws—protection of endangered whales and their repopulation into sustainable numbers. Japan has in fact hunted a number of endangered species in the 2006-2007 season, including 101 sei whales and 3 fin whales. However, 82% of whales caught by Japan in that season were minke whales, which is a species listed with “least concern” of endangerment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Japanese additionally collected 508 Southern Hermisphere minke whales out of an estimated population of 720,000, which they uphold is sustainable. Figures for pilot whales are undetermined, but they are also not considered an endangered species according to the American Cetacean Society, although the ACS notes that there has been an “obvious decrease in whale numbers.” While sustainability is still an issue for some whales collected in Japan, it does not seem a pressing concern for most whales hunted in Japan and indeterminate at best for pilot whales.
The whaling issue has essentially grown into a violent and emotional international debate, and lost sight of the original purpose to protect endangered whale species. If pilot whale hunts are considered too cruel, new methods to make the hunt less painful should be investigated. Research should be conducted to determine the exact status of pilot whales, and in the case that results demonstrate the centuries-old practice to be unsustainable, quotas should be placed accordingly. If Japan’s whaling is in fact sustainable, international law should be revised to consider this, with appropriate quotas and restrictions on species that are still endangered. Pushing for a complete ban that does not reflect the realities of whale populations not only ignores and disrespects the old cultures of these communities, but creates unnecessary political tension, and buries the most pressing issue of conservation under a mire of political distractions.
International law should reflect fact and not charged emotion. Whaling will most likely continue to be a controversial issue, but if it is approached openly and logically, the international realm will be able to move forward towards a resolution.
All facts and figures taken from the International Whaling Commission, the American Cetacean Society, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Word Wildlife Fund, SeaShepherd.org, DiscoveryUK.com, BBC, and the New York Times.