Japan decides to withdraw from IWC

A beluga whale sprays water towards visitors at the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise Tokyo

A beluga whale sprays water towards visitors at the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise Tokyo

While it's estimated that whaling employs only about 1,000 people in Japan and there's little demand for its end product, it serves a political goal similar to that of coal in the U.S.: it allows Japanese leaders to assert their independence from the worldwide community while appealing to those nostalgic for a traditional way of life.

Tokyo maintains most whale species are not endangered, and eating whale meat is part of its culture.

Japan is now conducting research whaling in the Northwestern Pacific and the Antarctic Ocean, but it must halt such activities in those waters once it withdraws from the IWC. Conservation groups warn the move will have serious consequences.

But hold on. What exactly has Japan announced?

"Commercial whaling. will be limited to Japan's territorial waters and exclusive economic zones".

As a result, Japan will stop hunting in Antarctic waters and the southern hemisphere, a prospect conservation groups had welcomed before it was formally confirmed.

"Japan now becomes a pirate whaling nation killing these ocean leviathans completely outside the bounds of worldwide law", Humane Society global president Kitty Block said.

In the 1950s, the practice reached its peak amid growing demand for whale meat as a key source of protein in the years following World War II, when the nation was poor and recovering from the devastation.

To combat the loss of whale meat, Japan switched to what it calls research whaling.

"Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called "scientific" whaling", its environment minister, Melissa Price, and foreign minister, Marise Payne, said in a statement.

Japan slashed its annual quota in the Antarctic by about one third after the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that the country's research whaling program wasn't as scientific as it had argued.

Greenpeace Japan urged the government to reconsider, and warned it would risk criticism as the host of the G20 summit in June.

Greenpeace Japan executive director Sam Annesley said the decision was a backwards step for the country.

Greenpeace Japan Executive Director Sam Annesley accused Japan's government of "trying to sneak in this announcement at the end of year" to avoid global scrutiny.

Greenpeace has criticised Japan's decision
Greenpeace has criticised Japan’s decision

What is the current whaling ban?

"Even after the withdrawal, I hope both whales and other fishery resources can be used sustainably under proper management, based on the accumulated data", Ebina said. In recent years, Japan was often accused of using the guise of "scientific research" as an ethical and legal cover for its hunting trips to Antarctica.

The move on Wednesday, which is expected to draw worldwide criticism, came more than three months after the global body for the conservation of whales rejected a Tokyo-led proposal to lift a 32-year ban on the commercial hunting of the mammals.

"The whaling will be conducted in accordance with worldwide law and within the catch limits calculated in accordance with the method adopted by the IWC to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources", Suga said.

The IWC was established in 1948 under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to conserve whales and realise the "orderly development of the whaling industry". The text does not say which worldwide organisation that is.

Whaling is a thorny issue in Japanese society, where the tradition of hunting marine mammals has existed for centuries.

Like a smaller version of the IWC, Nammco is a grouping of pro-whaling nations - Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands - born out of frustration with the IWC.

By the way, today's announcement doesn't mean that Japan hasn't been hunting whales all this time.

Though the government has actively defended whaling, consumption of whale meat at home is on the decline. This includes 372 minke whales, 26 Bryde's whales, and 90 sei whales.

The last attempt to do so came in September at an IWC summit in Brazil.

Why can't the IWC agree?

Japan offered a package of measures, including setting up a Sustainable Whaling Committee and sustainable catch limits "for abundant whale stocks/species".

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