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Japan set to resume commercial whaling, defying international ban

The move to exit the International Whaling Commission sparks international criticism from whale conservationists.

Japanese whaling in Northern Ross Sea Antarctica. Harpooned minke whale 1989
Japanese whaling in Northern Ross Sea Antarctica, 1989.
Photofusion/Getty Images

Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, which it's been a part of since 1951, to resume commercial whaling in 2019, a government spokesperson said Wednesday. 

"After the withdrawal comes into effect on June 30, Japan will conduct commercial whaling within Japan's territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone," said Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief cabinet secretary.  

The IWC was established in 1946 to govern the conduct of whaling worldwide, ensuring proper conservation of whale stocks, and currently has 88 member nations including the US, UK and Australia. Its global moratorium on whale hunting has been in place since 1986, but Japan has been able to circumvent the agreement because the IWC allows for hunts if the goal is scientific research. 

The country has operated its scientific whaling program since 1985, carrying out hunts in Antarctic waters that saw 333 minke whales killed over the 2017-2018 season, according to IWC. In total, almost 2,000 whales have been killed in the Antarctic since 2009 under a special permit granted by the IWC for research purposes. 

However, by withdrawing from the IWC as a member nation, Japan will no longer be able to hunt in Antarctic waters and the Southern Hemisphere, according to Suga. This seems like a win for whales, at least in the Antarctic, but similar numbers of whales have been hunted and killed around Japan and in the northwest Pacific Ocean under the same special permit since 2009.

The nation has lobbied against the global moratorium since inception, expressing the belief that many species are not endangered and reinforcing the notion that whale meat is central to Japanese culture. In September, Japan put forth a proposal to the IWC to allow commercial whaling operations to resume, but it was voted down 40-27

As the gap between pro-whaling and anti-whaling nations widened with that loss, it was expected Japan would leave the IWC. With Wednesday's formal announcement, Japan will withdraw as an IWC member state but continue to participate in talks as an observer. Commercial whaling operations will begin on July 1, 2019. 

This doesn't mean Japan is operating outside the law, as such, and the country will still conduct its hunts in accordance with international laws and limits calculated by the IWC. 

The Australian government, which has long fought the idea of Japan's whaling for scientific purposes, expressed disappointment at the withdrawal, as did New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and environmental organization Greenpeace, which labeled the withdrawal "sneaky." 

"It's clear that the government is trying to sneak in this announcement at the end of year away from the spotlight of international media, but the world sees this for what it is," Sam Annesley, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, said in a statement

"The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures."

Much of the whale meat in Japan ends up for sale, but most Japanese no longer eat it, according to Reuters

"We ate whale meat in the old days," a shopper told the news service, "but there are lots of other things to eat now." 

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