Coalition of the Whaling

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, September 25, 2007)


At a time when the international community is dealing with a range of long-term threats to the environment, a small faction keeps forcing it to re-fight one of its decided conservation victories.

For years, the International Whaling Commission has stood as a prime example of how multilateral cooperation can drive conservation. Formed in 1946 to regulate a whaling industry that was rapidly obliterating the world’s cetaceans, the commission eventually imposed a worldwide moratorium on whaling in 1986.

So for the last two decades, whale species once on the brink of extinction have started to come back. For the last two decades, countries have realized the value of ecotourism and, by the year 2000, 87 countries offered whale watching tours, generating more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

And for the last two decades, a small cabal — Norway, Iceland, and especially ringleader Japan — have worked to undermine both the spirit and letter of international law when it comes to whales, trying to overturn the ban while hunting the animals despite it.

Japan has consistently killed between 600 and 1,000 whales a year, and has announced plans to slaughter 1,035 more in the coming months. It tries to justify its actions by claiming the hunt is for “scientific research” — a duplicitous claim given that the whale meat is sold to restaurants and food processors while two decades of “research” have produced no scientific findings. For its part, Norway resumed killing about 600 whales annually for commercial purposes in 1992, while Iceland piggybacked on Japan’s “research” claim to resume hunting in 2004. Between them, this triumvirate has harpooned more than 30,000 whales in violation of the ban.

With a strategy that would make Alberto Gonzales proud, Japan has also spent the past few years trying to legalize the illegal activity it’s already performing through a range of unsavory tactics. The closest it has come to success so far was at the 2006 annual meeting of the IWC where, despite failing to overturn the moratorium, it did pass a resolution calling the ban “no longer necessary” by a 33-32 vote.

“Japan is playing the long game and although it did not fully succeed this time, it won enough points to be satisfied that its strategy of buying votes is working,” the New Zealand Herald editorialized at the time. “Indeed, unless something is done to turn the tide, it cannot be long before Japan is able to dominate the IWC and return to commercial whaling.”

Of course, Japan achieved that vote through a campaign of outright bribery. Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Tuvalu all had three things in common – previously adhering to the ban, being poor island nations, and basing their 2006 decision on the wrong kind of green influence. By the June 2006 meeting, Japan had spent more than $100 million of its largesse over 8 years to give small, economically poor countries an incentive to back its position. That June, it also pledged another $410 million “aid package” for South Pacific nations whose votes it needed.

This year, with pro-conservation countries — led by Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and also including the U.S. — standing their ground, Japan also resorted to blackmail.

The humpback whale — nearly extinct in the early 1980s before the moratorium began — has long been the logical symbol of the IWC. So Japan announced at this past summer’s meeting in Anchorage that it would kill 50 humpbacks this year if it didn’t get its way. It also made an underhanded offer to drop that plan if the IWC would approve “limited commercial whaling” by four Japanese villagers. Of course, that approval would have broken the moratorium and given Japan a de facto overturning of the ban without needing to muster a two-thirds majority within the IWC. The majority saw through that ruse.

Japan has also rotated its excuses for the hunt, none of them compelling.

It has blamed whales for depleted fishing stocks (a real problem, but one that has far more to do with overfishing by humans and the side effects of climate change than with whales). It’s claimed eating whale is part of Japanese tradition even though, as The Economist notes, “The boom in consumption came only with the American occupation after the second World War, when whale meat was a cheap source of protein for a malnourished country. That hastened the collapse in whale stocks, which led to the moratorium.” The Japanese government has also argued whale meat is a necessary food source for the population, even though it has an unused stockpile reportedly between 400 and 600 tons, and has taken to using leftover meat for pet food.

Since none of these tactics are working, Japan has also repeatedly threatened to quit the IWC altogether. To take its ball and go home if everyone else won’t let it win.

While this ongoing story has received little attention in the American press (the Christian Science Monitor is a notable exception, having called for a consumer boycott of Japan in 2006), there have been some small but positive developments of late.

In August, Iceland — the third stooge in the pro-whaling movement — announced it would suspend its hunts, as the domestic market for whale meat had essentially dried up. This summer, the Humane Society International won an appeal in Australian federal court on its attempted injunction against Japanese whalers planning to invade Australian waters in December (a final court decision is due soon). Australia’s opposition Labor Party has proposed a surveillance crackdown on Japanese boats, with some party members suggesting military action against vessels that are effectively committing piracy. And numerous organizations in the United States and abroad have organized grassroots boycotts of Japanese products and travel to that country.

Between the World War II era and the 1980s, most of the world developed a greater understanding of both conservation and international law. For whatever reason on this issue, Japan and its cohorts have allowed that consciousness to pass them by. It’s past time for the United States or the United Nations to join smaller nations in pressuring whaling states to stop undermining the law and the environment. Multilateral agreements need robust enforcement to work. There’s little reason to think future accords will work if the world can’t stand up to a few rogues, and the whole world stands to suffer for that.

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