Whaling brings to mind visions of the 19th century. Harpoons into blubber. Captain Ahab versus Moby-Dick. The International Whaling Commission used to be a whalers’ club, but now is focused increasingly on new conservation measures. The International Herald Tribune reports
But in some parts of the world, whaling remains very much alive, despite a world moratorium on commercial whaling that took effect in 1986. In 2011, more than 1,500 whales were hunted and killed, according to figures compiled from the Web site of the International Whaling Commission, an intergovernmental body. That represents a decline from 2008, when more than 1,900 were killed.
Controversy about the practice continues. The International Court of Justice, a U.N. court based in The Hague, is considering a challenge by Australia against the whaling practices of Japan, which killed 540 whales in 2011, according to the commission.
“Australia has a very difficult case to make,” said Cymie R. Payne, an assistant professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who specializes in international and environmental law. However, she said, the court could side with Australia and order Japan to cease whaling.
Concerned about the over-hunting of whales, fifteen nations came together in 1946 to sign a treaty aimed at conserving the whale population. The treaty created an oversight body, the International Whaling Commission. In the 1980s, after public outcry against whaling intensified, members of the commission imposed a moratorium that allowed no commercial hunting of the animals. Some nations oppose the moratorium and have exercised what they consider their right to continue whaling.
Norway caught 533 whales for commercial purposes in 2011, and Iceland took 58, according to the commission. (Some of the 2011 numbers run roughly from spring 2011 to spring 2012; more recent figures were not available.) Hunters from aboriginal groups in Greenland, the United States, Russia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines collectively took 384 whales in 2011.
The nation that has hunted the most whales in recent years is Japan. It does so under a scientific exemption, saying that the whale hunts are for research purposes. But the whale meat is sold to consumers — officially, as a byproduct of the research. Environmentalists charge that the Japanese whaling program relies on heavy subsidies.
“The fact is that more than half a million Antarctic minke whales can easily support an annual harvest,” Yoshihiro Fujise, director general of the Institute of Cetacean Research, which conducts Japan’s Antarctic whaling program, said in a statement last year. Minke are the type that Japan mostly hunts.
The International Whaling Commission’s most recent estimate, published in 2012, shows that there were about 515,000 minke whales in Antarctic waters in the period between 1992 and 2004.
Tensions over Japan’s whaling practices have existed for years. An anti-whaling group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, regularly pursues Japanese whaling boats, igniting confrontations on the high seas. Japan has complained bitterly about these tactics. Recently, a three-judge panel of a U.S. court in San Francisco took its side.
In a dramatically worded ruling in February, the chief judge, Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, wrote: “You don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch. When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be.”
The Institute of Cetacean Research hailed the ruling, which enables a lawsuit brought against Sea Shepherd by the Japanese whalers to move forward.
Sea Shepherd, which is based in the United States, is seeking to have a larger, 11-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit review the case. The group also recently filed suit in the Netherlands, where some of its ships are registered, accusing the Japanese whalers of violent tactics.
The legal battle taking place at the International Court of Justice is not as animated but is potentially more significant. In 2010, Australia sued Japan over its whaling in Antarctic waters, saying it had breached its obligations under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the 1946 agreement. This year, New Zealand was allowed to join the case on Australia’s side.
Written arguments concluded about a year ago. Oral proceedings could start this year, although it is unlikely that a final decision will come before next spring at the earliest, according to Ms. Payne, the Rutgers professor.
The International Court of Justice case “hopefully will close legal loopholes in the Whaling Convention,” Peter H. Sand, who teaches international environmental law at the University of Munich, said in an e-mail. Mr. Sand is a former secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, also known as Cites, a group that oversees a multinational treaty.
Politics overlay the courtroom battles. “These are countries that interact with each other on a lot of different issues, and they don’t want this to become something that is going to harm their other political and commercial relationships,” Ms. Payne said.
In a blog post on The New York Times Web site this year, Jun Morikawa, a professor of international relations at Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan, cited a “slight — very slight — possibility” that the Japanese government could move to end research whaling to strengthen relations with anti-whaling powers like the United States and the European Union, as well as Australia.
“Because the general public in Japan does not consider whaling a major issue,” he wrote, “a drastic shift in whaling policy could be a cheap, safe and a fairly effective bargaining chip.”
Meanwhile, the International Whaling Commission, which decades ago was considered something of a whalers’ club, is focused increasingly on new conservation measures. Some whale species are thriving, but others are not. Simon Brockington, the commission’s executive secretary, said that for whales, “being caught in nets or being run over by ships is perhaps as great a source of mortality” as the hunting. A whale entangled in a net can take months to die, he said.
The International Whaling Commission is working to remedy some of these problems, like researching pollution issues and rerouting shipping lanes in areas with heavy whale populations to avoid ship strikes, Mr. Brockington said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 3, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Simon Brockington. He is executive secretary of the International Whaling Commission, not executive director.
- Japanese whalers have ‘worst ever’ catch (stuff.co.nz)
- Japan Report Record Low Whaling Haul, Blames Activist ‘Sabotage’ (latinospost.com)
- Japanese whaling haul at record low (abc.net.au)
- Japan rues low whale haul (theage.com.au)
- Record low catch for Japan whaling season, Sea Shepherd blamed (japandailypress.com)
- Sea Shepherd activists confront whalers (bigpondnews.com)
- Whaling Haul Hits ‘Record Low’ In Japan (news.sky.com)
- Japan whaling haul at ‘record low’ (smh.com.au)