Japan faces waves of criticism for plans to continue research whaling program

Joji Morishita, center, and other representatives of Japan talk at the International Whaling Commission’s plenary session in Portoroz, Slovenia.

PORTOROZ, Slovenia - Japan came under heavy fire from anti-whaling countries on Wednesday, the third day of the plenary session of the International Whaling Commission, as it announced a policy to continue whaling for scientific purposes in the Antarctic Ocean.

On Thursday, the final day of the plenary session, the IWC adopted a proposal by New Zealand to tighten procedures for research whaling.

Japan was asked sharply at the session why it is trying to continue whaling regardless of the International Court of Justice's order in March to halt research whaling operations.

Japan plans to continue research whaling after reviewing its programme, but this seems unlikely to ease the doubts of the international community. The nation's research whaling has come to a crossroads.

A US representative condemned Japan's scientific whaling in a forceful tone, saying it is not necessary to kill whales for scientific research aimed at their management and control. A New Zealand representative followed, saying Japan has not submitted sufficient data from its research whaling in the past.

About 60 of the IWC's 88 member countries participated in the plenary session, with a majority of them taking positions against whaling.

Their criticisms were grounded on the court ruling in March, which said that since fiscal 2005 Japan has nearly doubled the upper limit of minke whales it hunts to about 850, with a ceiling of 935.

As the number of whales actually caught has been far lower than the figures cited by the programme almost every year, the court concluded that the whaling cannot be considered to be scientific research.

For the antiwhaling countries that have criticised Japan but not been able to stop its whaling, the March ruling is a powerful card, according to an Australian representative.

Even after this ruling, Japan's position remains unchanged: It wants to continue research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.

In fiscal 2014, this research involves nothing more than visually observing whales, but from fiscal 2015, Japan hopes to resume whaling based on a revised research plan.

The logic behind Japan's argument is clear. The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling allows whales to be caught for obtaining scientific data on whale resources, and for meat from whales caught for research purposes to be sold.

March's ruling by the ICJ also recognised that Japan's research whaling programme "can broadly be characterized as 'scientific research.'"

Provided Japan can explain the necessity of its surveys, and back this up with scientific data, there should be no problem resuming its research whaling.

Japan will submit its new research plan to the IWC Scientific Committee by November. After being screened by the committee in May 2015, Japanese whaling ships could leave port to conduct research whaling in the Antarctic that winter.

Not cut and dry

At a meeting of the committee in May, researchers from nations including Australia and New Zealand took the unusual step of dropping all debates regarding research whaling, given Japan's defeat in the ICJ case.

In October, Japan plans to assemble pro-whaling and antiwhaling researchers to discuss the content of the new plan, but concerns remain that those opposed to the hunt will not accept the invitation.

Among antiwhaling nations, there is a strong belief that Japan should restrict the size of its catches for research whaling "to the smallest level possible."

Unless Japan scientifically explains the need to catch whales, rather than just observing them, and compiles a research plan with a significant reduction in the maximum quota scheduled to be caught, it could find itself in the extraordinary situation of being hauled before the International Court of Justice again.

As domestic consumption of whale meat has plunged in recent decades, some Japanese are sceptical of the worth of spending several billion yen each year on research whaling. The government will also need to answer these doubting voices within Japan.

More about