A minke whale in the antarctica
A minke whale in the antarctica | Photo: ravas51 | CC BY SA 2.0

Is the commercial whaling ban in danger? Japan’s withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission

After decades of whaling under an exemption for scientific research, Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission last month, formally resuming commercial whaling. What effects will this have on the commission, and the international ban on commercial whaling in general? While the ban has been weakened over the past decades, the recent withdrawal does not necessarily sound the death knell. Rather, it could also mean the end of decades of deadlock in the commission. More broadly, the Japanese exit raises questions of dealing with international challenges through inclusive institutions and commissions – Should inclusivity be pursued at any cost, or can it be productive to proceed on different tracks?

Last December, the Japanese government decided to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The decision followed a commission meeting in Florianopolis, Brazil, where Japan was again not successful in gaining the necessary three-quarters majority to restart limited commercial whaling worldwide. Japan’s withdrawal is linked to the failed 2007–2010 “Future of the IWC” negotiation process between pro- and anti-whaling states. Compromise was not found and the IWC has been deadlocked on the issue for over 20 years.

But what is this standoff actually about? And what effects will it have on (1) the IWC, and (2) the ban on commercial whaling in general? The ban has already been significantly weakened over the past 20 years. Indeed, Japan’s decision to withdraw does not necessarily imply an increase in whaling activities. So far, a cascade of other states starting whaling activities has not occurred. Although the effects on the IWC as an institution are less certain, we are likely to see a shift towards a more conservationist organization.

The IWC: From a whalers’ club to a ban on commercial whaling

The International Whaling Commission was established in 1946 as an institution to deal with the management of global whale stocks, which was not a politicized activity at the time. Shortly thereafter, over-fishing and blatant influence of the whaling industry on the commission infamously lead to a rapid decline of many whale species in the mid-20th century.

This decline sparked transnational environmental and animal rights movements from the 1970s and 1980s onwards. Whales were a central campaign focus, as these animals are particularly fascinating to humans due to their mere size as well as characteristics such as emotional intelligence and longevity. Alongside other charismatic megafauna such as elephants, whales made for an ideal campaigning item. The economic profitability of whaling had already markedly decreased due to the decline in stocks and the development of alternative products for whale blubber. In sum, many Western governments, including the USA, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia, were easily persuaded to end their commercial whaling activities.

Over the years, animal rights NGOs campaigned for the admission of many countries to the IWC which had never been involved in whaling. By 1982, the anti-whaling coalition had gained the three-quarters majority necessary to change IWC whaling quotas. They passed a – nominally temporary – moratorium on commercial whaling which came into force in 1986 and has been in place ever since. Yet two forms of whaling remained legal with this decision: First, the IWC passes whaling quotas for aboriginal subsistence whaling, used in Alaska, Greenland, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. Second, lethal research whaling based on domestically issued permits remains legal.

Growing frustrations of pro-whalers

Some countries were not satisfied with this moratorium, particularly those with traditions of whale cuisine and coastal whaling (although the length of this tradition is often disputed). Norway and Iceland started research whaling programs, and, when they were persuaded that certain stocks off their coasts were not endangered, moved back to commercial whaling. Norway had objected to the moratorium and was thus never bound by it. Iceland questionably left and rejoined the IWC with an objection against the moratorium. Finally, Japan accepted the moratorium in a deal over fishing rights in the US exclusive economic zone in the 1980s – rights which were renounced by the US with regard to foreign fishery activities some years later. Japan launched rather large research whaling programs whose scientific merits have been consistently questioned. It also campaigned for the admission of many countries from Africa and the Caribbean which supported pro-whaling positions and were now often the beneficiaries of generous Japanese development aid in the area of fishery. This fueled the ever-increasing polarization of the IWC, culminating in massive contestation of the moratorium in the mid-2000s and the start of the above-mentioned “Future of the IWC” process.

What the current conflict is about

The positions are clear: The anti-whaling side argues that it is difficult to estimate whale stocks in the first place, and that data come with very high uncertainty, making whaling a major risk for the preservation of many whale species. Some argue that whales should not be killed at all and that, if at all, very high standards of international monitoring and sanctioning should be in place to ascertain compliance with international rules.

The pro-whaling side argues that stocks of some whale species (for example, minke whales) have recovered or have been less endangered than assumed. Giving out commercial whaling quotas in a sustainable manner would therefore be possible. For the pro-whaling side, indigenous whaling and “traditional” coastal whaling have many commonalities. They argue that the US’ and Great Britain’s “green” policies on whaling are hypocritical, given these states’ rather low priority of animal rights and environmental protection in other areas. Critics also argue that the proposed international standards for monitoring and sanctioning are unreasonably high – so high that it is impossible to comply.

Japan’s withdrawal still a surprise

Considering this history, Japan’s withdrawal is a consistent step – yet observers were still surprised. Under the current legal framework, loopholes for activities such as research whaling remain so broad that Japan did not have to fear major formal reproach. For example, a 2014 International Court of Justice decision only argued for the shut-down of one specific program, but neither ruled out new programs nor that whale meat from research whaling could enter the Japanese market. Moreover, a broad Japanese market for whale meat no longer exists, making large commercial whaling enterprises hardly viable. The consumption was particularly high in the post-WWII period, when whale meat was a major source of protein (in school lunches in particular). Today, the younger generation has less of a taste for whale meat. Last but not least, international law (UNCLOS) stipulates that whaling activities must be organized through an international organization. Here, a true alternative body to the IWC does not yet exist. To adhere to this rule, Japan essentially has two options. It could create a new international, perhaps regional, organization. Alternatively, Japan could join an extant organization which could be changed into serving this purpose. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission with its four Nordic members could be an option, but it remains an open question if the current members want to go down this road. A final option could be the Icelandic variant: Trying to re-join the IWC in some years with an objection in place.

The Japanese government might simply be weary of continuously financing the highly contested and very costly practice of research whaling in the Antarctic. While many argue that the Abe government withdrew out of populist reasoning (including Japanese and German outlets) it might also have decided on exiting as a way out of the costly dead-end situation of research whaling.

No significant further erosion of the whaling ban

Yet despite this widely-covered step, the ban on commercial whaling does not seem to be eroding any further. The ban had already been weakened considerably in the past 20 years by accommodating the loopholes and objections of pro-whaling states. In fact, there is a good chance that Japanese whaling quotas will actually sink due to a shift to limited commercial whaling activities in Japanese coastal waters. It is also unlikely that the pro-whaling Caribbean and African countries will start whaling activities. The only aspiring whaler is currently South Korea. Yet it has been whaling informally anyways for years – by using lax rules on whale bycatch.

Wither the IWC?

For the IWC, the resumption of Japanese commercial whaling might have both positive and negative effects: There might finally be more time to focus on topics beyond Japanese research whaling, which has crowded the IWC agenda for years. Further urgent topics include by-catch, ship strikes, debris, ship noise and other human activities endangering whales. Moreover, meetings might be less polarized as it is to be accepted that many of the supporters of Japan in the IWC will leave the organization. It will then be an organization dedicated to whale protection only.

However, the commission will now also have considerably less money (not being well endowed anyways), as only the whaling countries pay considerable membership fees. Even some anti-whaling states might be rather unhappy about the shifts: The US and Danish governments support whaling quotas for their indigenous communities while anti-whalers such as Australia or Great Britain are highly critical. It may now be more difficult to uphold support for indigenous whaling in the IWC, a cause Japan had traditionally supported.

More generally, the further development of the IWC will show to what extent it is effective to process international challenges through inclusive international institutions in cases of deadlock. In the case of whaling, inclusivity lead to a decades-long institutional deadlock in which real dialogue became impossible. Perhaps proceeding along separate institutional routes will now lead to slightly lower levels of whaling activities – while simultaneously offering more space for in-depth discussions of whale protection. The political process around whaling therefore might have interesting lessons in store for other contested issues in global governance.


Cover International Studies ReviewNicole Deitelhoff and Lisbeth Zimmermann are analyzing the link of contestation and norm robustness with regard to R2P and the ban on commercial whaling in a current article in International Studies Review
Lisbeth Zimmermann

Lisbeth Zimmermann

Prof. Dr. Lisbeth Zimmermann ist Professorin für Internationale Beziehungen an der Zeppelin Universität, Friedrichshafen. Sie ist außerdem assoziierte Forscherin in der Programmbereich „Internationale Institutionen“ an der HSFK, wo sie das Projekt „Internationale Normen im Streit: Kontestation und Normrobustheit“ leitet. // Prof. Dr Lisbeth Zimmermann holds the Chair of International Relations at Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen. She is also an Associate Fellow at PRIF's Research Department “International Institutions” where she co-directs the project “Norm Disputes: Contestation and Norm Robustness”.

Lisbeth Zimmermann

Prof. Dr. Lisbeth Zimmermann ist Professorin für Internationale Beziehungen an der Zeppelin Universität, Friedrichshafen. Sie ist außerdem assoziierte Forscherin in der Programmbereich „Internationale Institutionen“ an der HSFK, wo sie das Projekt „Internationale Normen im Streit: Kontestation und Normrobustheit“ leitet. // Prof. Dr Lisbeth Zimmermann holds the Chair of International Relations at Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen. She is also an Associate Fellow at PRIF's Research Department “International Institutions” where she co-directs the project “Norm Disputes: Contestation and Norm Robustness”.

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