A fleet of Japanese ships is currently hunting minke whales in the Southern Ocean. Japan is hunting and killing whales in a conservation zone, the Southern Ocean whaling sanctuary, that surrounds Antarctica. Japan claims that it does so only for scientific purposes.
“Essentially, they are exploiting a loophole in the rules – introduced in the 80s – that govern the banning of commercial whaling,” said Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd.
A few years ago, the International Court of Justice – at the instigation of Australia and New Zealand – ruled that the country’s whaling plan had no scientific basis. Japan was forced to halt whale hunting and had to come back with a plan to carry out “scientific whaling” in the region. This now involves catching only 330 minkes, and no humpbacks or fin whales. But, crucially, the Japanese also doubled the area of the Southern Ocean from which they said they would seek whales, and that has made it much harder to block their hunting. It is simply a lot more difficult to find the whaling fleet in a much larger area of sea. In addition, the Japanese have provided military tracking hardware to the fleet. And they have also made it an act of terrorism for anybody to approach within 500 metres of a whaling vessel.
Paul Watson explains why the Japanese are so determined to kill whales when most of the world wants to conserve them. Since the 1980s, the international community has been largely united in agreeing to stop the practice because of the dramatic declines in populations that had occurred after centuries of whaling. But not Japan.
“The Japanese get so much of their protein from fish and other marine creatures – and that dependency worries their government,” said Watson. “It fears that, if it gives in to calls for a ban on whaling, that will be seen as an admission that the international community can dictate what Japan can and cannot do at sea.”
In other words, Japan worries that conservationists would then move on to other major marine issues – such as the bluefin tuna, another threatened species, which the Japanese catch and consume in large numbers. Japan does not want anyone else to have influence on its marine policy and as a result has followed a practice of voting down anything and everything to do with conservation at sea.
Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, is a conservative and a nationalist, and is opposed to giving way to other nations over traditional issues, say observers. They point out that Abe has tried to turn the catching of whales into a nationalist concern by claiming it is a cultural topic unique to Japan and should be given special international status. There is the issue of the Antarctic Treaty which strictly controls how the continent and its waters are exploited. That treaty does not expire until 2048. But if Japan maintains a presence in Antarctic waters it could make a claim to be allowed greater influence in the region when a new treaty is negotiated by world powers.
The ministry of fisheries in Japan is also very powerful and the Institute of Cetacean Research, which carries out the “scientific whaling” in the Southern Ocean, is part of that ministry. “Its bureaucrats are very senior and very influential,” added Peter Hammarstedt, a Sea Shepherd captain. “They tend to get their way.”
Japan is not the only nation to hunt whales. Norway has a commercial operation in its own waters, for example.