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'Openly Declaring Their Illegal Whaling Activities,' Japan Abandons Global Effort to Protect Whale Population

"As a country surrounded by oceans where people's lives have been heavily reliant on marine resources, it is essential for Japan to work towards healthy oceans. Japan's government has so far failed to resolve these problems."

A minke whale, which Japanese commercial fisheries have hunted for sport. (Photo: Tom Benson)

After denying for several days reports that they were planning to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Japanese officials said Wednesday that the country would withdraw from the 89-member panel in order to defy its ban on commercial whaling.

The move will eliminate the country's long-held "pretense" of hunting whales only for research purposes, said the conservation group Sea Shepherd, as Japan officially declares itself a "pirate whaling nation."

"This means that Japan is now openly declaring their illegal whaling activities," Paul Watson, founder of the group, told the New York Times.

"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. The declaration today is out of step with the international community." —Sam Annesley, Greenpeace Japan

Since the IWC introduced its ban on commercial whaling in 1986, Japan has used regular so-called "research whaling" trips off the coasts of Antarctica as a loophole to continue its whale-hunting. The country has killed an average of 333 minke whales on its expeditions, including more than 120 pregnant female whales last year.

Instead of traveling to the Southern Ocean every year, Japanese whalers will now resume hunting in Japan's territories and exclusive economic zone beginning in July 2019, selling whale meat on the open market.

Greenpeace Japan noted that the country's timing of the announcement would not stop green groups from condemning its plan to openly slaughter whales for profit. 

"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," said Sam Annesley, the group's executive director. "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."

Following Iceland and Norway, which have also defied the IWC's ban on commercial whaling, Japan's withdrawal from the international body will mark the end of its participation in the global effort to save the world's whales from human activity.

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"The Commission is the pre-eminent global body responsible for the conservation and management of whales and leads international efforts to tackle the growing range of threats to whales globally, including by-catch, ship strikes, entanglement, noise, and whaling," said Australia's environment minister, Melissa Price, in a statement. "Their decision to withdraw is regrettable and Australia urges Japan to return to the Convention and Commission as a matter of priority."

As Common Dreams reported  last week, Japan first denied rumors of its plans to leave the IWC. Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga admitted in a statement that the government is putting its own " life and culture of using whales" ahead of conservation efforts.

"In its long history, Japan has used whales not only as a source of protein but also for a variety of other purposes," Suga said.

In fact, demand for whale meat in Japan has plummeted in recent years, with the industry depending on government subsidies to survive.

Commercial whaling represents the exact opposite direction Japan should be headed in regarding marine activity, Greenpeace Japan said.

"The world's oceans face multiple threats such as acidification and plastic pollution, in addition to overfishing," Annesley said. "As a country surrounded by oceans where people's lives have been heavily reliant on marine resources, it is essential for Japan to work towards healthy oceans. Japan's government has so far failed to resolve these problems.

"As the chair of the G20 in 2019, the Japanese government needs to recommit to the IWC and prioritize new measures for marine conservation," he concluded.

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