On April 3rd, 2021, four whaling vessels left Ishinomaki and Hachinohe on Japan’s eastern coast. In June, they will be joined by a fifth vessel. These boats are setting out to partake in a highly controversial practice – commercial whaling. This practice has been halted worldwide since 1986, but after Japan’s departure from the International Whaling Committee on July 1st, 2019, the island nation has swiftly resumed the divisive practice despite international condemnation. This article asks why whaling is still happening in 2021, and explores the potential diplomatic and climate repercussions that play out in response to the practice.

A Short History of Japanese Whaling

Historians suggest that the Japanese have been hunting whales since 4000 BCE. However, it was not until the 15th century CE that documentation began detailing whaling practices in the Kyushu (southwestern) region of the Nagasaki prefecture Tsushima during the Muromachi period. The primary reason for hunting whales has been for their meat, which has been seen by the imperial class and wider society as a premium food source. It was even considered essential after the Japanese were defeated in the Second World War due to issues of food scarcity. Other bodily parts have also been utilised through time, such as whale oil for fuel and pesticide.

Commercial whaling was economically prosperous for Japan, bringing in approximately $100 million a year in revenue until it was banned in 1986. The ban was the act of the International Whaling Committee (IWC), the body that governs the implementation of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) which was enacted in 1946. 

Whaling in the Name of “Science”

Until 2019, when Japanese commercial whaling resumed, Japan had only been hunting Minke, Bryde’s and Sei whales for scientific purposes. However, according to the International Whaling Committee, since 1987, Japan has killed between 200 and 1,200 of these whales each year under this guise of “science.” The reasons for scientific hunting are often hazy and permit exploitation under the facade of monitoring for quotas. For example, in 2020 and 2021, 383 Bryde’s, Sei and Minke whales have been killed– an amount substantially over the 227-quota limit that Japan is meant to follow. 

(Source: International whaling commission)

Moreover, many whales are still dying unnecessarily through modern fishing practices as bycatch in trawler nets. When a whale was caught in a fishing net off the Japanese coast at Taiji in January 2021, the film of its slow, 19 day death whilst stuck in a fishing net shocked a global audience. In the film, it was clear that fishermen were not actively trying to prevent the whale’s death. The footage showcased how even in 2021, whales are victims of predictable and avoidable bycatch practices.

For Ren Yabuki, the head of Japanese animal rights NGO Life Investigation Agency (LIA), the event was particularly distressing. His lobbying to the net business in question and the many videos he posted online went unheard by those who could initiate change. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated in reaction to the film: ‘At a time when we are already seeing the tragic and irreversible destruction of our natural world, with the sea increasingly pumped full of plastics and climate change threatening entire ecosystems, it is more important than ever to take a stand against the cruel practice of whaling.’

The Importance of Protecting Whales

Scientific and commercial whaling – and the bycatch of whales – is highly frowned upon within the international community; it’s persistence is particularly frustrating in this era of eleventh-hour environmental reform. For beyond concerns about animal cruelty from hunting practices, many are unaware that the fight to protect whales themselves is also vital in the fight against climate change.

Whale excrement in the ocean is an essential food source for oceanic micro-organisms. According to Investors’ Corner, the official blog of BNP Paribas Asset Management, these phytoplankton capture approximately 40% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That is  as much as 1.7 trillion trees, which is four times the number that exist in the Amazon rainforest. 

Phytoplankton bloom (Photo: Jacques Descloitres, NASA/GSF)

Upon dying and sinking to the seabed, whales trap carbon dioxide in a process known as blue carbon sequestration. Every great whale stores approximately 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide, thereby preventing that volume from entering the atmosphere. Because of these carbon-absorbing properties and their role in facilitating the growth of phytoplankton, whales are important organisms in the fight against climate change. One could even go as far as to say they are an essential asset to help curb today’s alarmingly high levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

International Reactions to Renewed Whaling

Japan’s uncompromising whaling has become a divisive issue for the global community and the continued practice has been met with worldwide criticism. Australia has condemned Japan on many occasions, sending its own ships to investigate Japan’s actions. They have even taken Japan to the International Court of Justice over whaling. As Melissa Price, Australia’s environment minister in 2018 announced when Japan withdrew from the IWC: “We will continue to work through the commission to conserve whales and remain opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling.”  

The NGO Sea Shepherd, which patrols ocean waters with an aim to catch illegal whaling, has  angered some Japanese and inadvertently increased domestic support for whaling. Some have taken Sea Shepherd’s condemnation and interference as racist acts from foreign ‘eco-terrorists.’ Many Japanese remain against commercial whaling but are notably silent when it comes to anti-whaling initiatives. 

MY Bob Barker, one of the ships owned by the NGO Sea Shepherd (Photo: Danny Webster, Flickr)

A professor at Temple University Japan, Jeff Kingston, has called whaling ‘a black mark’ on Japan’s ‘green credentials internationally.’ He goes on to explain that the protein benefits from consuming whale meat remain very minimal and those who benefit from the industry constitute a small percentage of the Japanese population. After all, the whaling industry itself employs only 300 people

European Hypocrisy 

Outrage over persistent whaling cannot be solely laid upon Asian shoulders. Many European countries have supported Australia’s condemnation of Japan but determinedly looked the other way when it comes to its neighbour states indulging in whaling. In 2009, Nordic European countries were in fact hunting more whales than Japan itself. Iceland, the Danish Faroe Islands and Norway all actively partake in whale hunting and consistently deflect international scrutiny of their own actions by pointing fingers towards Japan, who receives the most diplomatic pressure. 

Whaling demand in Norway has even risen in recent years, with the Norwegian government easing requirements for hunt participation. Since 1993, when Norway rejected the IWC’s ban on commercial whaling, more than 14,000 Minke whales have been slaughtered. Iceland too has used the loophole of scientific whaling to continue commercially hunting whales since the 1990s.

The Danish Faroe Islands also participate in whaling but this is a centuries-old practice – neither commercial nor illegal. This is considered a recognised cultural practice that is defended rigorously by the Faroese government. The Faroese government states: ‘both the meat and blubber of pilot whales have long been and continue to be a part of the national diet.’ They continue to stress that their traditional whaling is ‘both economic and environmental good sense’ as it makes the ‘most of natural resources which are locally available.’

However, many argue that hunts like these, regardless of motive, need to cease for the greater good of the oceanic ecosystem. Ultimately, in the coming years as newer generations bring climate-conscious cultural values to the mainstream, it will be seen if whaling continues to be as virulently supported as it has been for decades in Japan and in the “environmentally progressive” European states. If whaling does persist, future generations will surely pay the price of permitting this practice.

Emily Lewis