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Editorial: Japan’s whaling is no longer about ‘science’

EDITORIAL: Do you want the good news or the bad news? One positive thing we can say about Japan’s decision to resume commercial whaling in 2019 is that it finally solves an argument. It shows that Japan has dropped the pretence that the more than 300 whales it killed each year in the Antarctic Ocean died in the name of “scientific research”. The science loophole has gone but the whaling will continue. 

Japan has confirmed that it will leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in June 2019, allowing it to resume commercial whaling within its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. Withdrawing from the IWC, which banned commercial whaling in 1986 but permitted small numbers to be taken for science, means that Japan’s whaling ships will stay away from the Southern Ocean Whaling Sanctuary, which activist group Sea Shepherd hails as a victory. But in other ways, Japan’s decision is a repugnant one that has inevitably been greeted with shock and dismay in New Zealand, Australia and more than 80 other countries that remain in the IWC. 

The scientific justification always seemed farcical and flimsy. As Australian politician and whale campaigner Tony Burke explained, “there was never anything scientific about harpooning a whale, cutting it up and putting it on a plate”.

There was worldwide revulsion when Japanese whalers killed more than 200 pregnant female minke whales within its “scientific” quota of 333 whales in 2016. That take directly flouted an International Court of Justice ruling that challenged the scientific loophole two years earlier. 

Dropping the pretence of science has enabled Japan to be more open about its intentions. 

“In its long history, Japan has used whales not only as a source of protein but also for a variety of other purposes,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga​ said at a news conference this week. “Engagement in whaling has been supporting local communities, and thereby developed the life and culture of using whales.”

Suga added that “Japan hopes that more countries will share the same position to promote sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence”. 

What a horrific euphemism, “aquatic living resources”.

There is a view that the country’s whaling obsession is less about food, as whale meat is surprisingly unpopular in Japan, especially among younger people, than it is about politics and culture. Defying the world’s rules and resuming commercial whaling is a bold expression of national identity. 

Japan is not alone in doing so. Norway and Iceland also claim histories of whaling and have defied the 1986 ban on commercial killing. But it seems that, as in Japan, consumer taste is at odds with national identity. A 2018 report found that while Norway had about 350 whaling ships in 1950, there were only 11 operating in 2017. In that year, Norwegian whalers took less than half their annual quota of 999 whales. 

Icelandic whalers have killed more than 500 fin whales since 2006, with the meat exported to the declining whale market in Japan, due to the absence of local demand, according to the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation. 

The New Zealand Government is right to say that whaling is both outdated and unnecessary. Lack of consumer interest or basic human disgust may eventually cause Iceland, Norway and Japan to stop altogether.

In the meantime, we can relish the sad irony of knowing we were right all along about Japan’s claims that it had to kill these intelligent and endangered animals in the name of science.