Science, culture and whaling

At the beginning of the month, the Australian government began to present its case against Japan’s whaling programme to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. With the support of New Zealand, Australia accused Japan of using scientific research as an excuse to conduct commercial whaling. This goes against an international ban, and Australia has requested that all permits for future Japanese whaling fleets be withdrawn. As the primary judicial branch of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice’s function is to settle disputes between states, such as this whaling controversy. The court is expected to reach a decision by the end of the year and although the case will no doubt be settled on the basis of legality rather than morality, the example shows that culture and values play an important role in whaling, and indeed any environmental discourse.

The practice of whaling has taken place since pre-historic times but modern commercial whaling began in the 1860s with the development of the explosive harpoon and steam-powered boats. By the 1930s more than 50,000 whales were being killed annually for meat and oil. It was this overproduction that led to a decline in the price of whale oil and it was actually this, rather than overexploitation of whale stocks, that was the initial driving force behind early moves to limit catches.

On 2nd December 1946 the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was signed in Washington DC by 15 nations and came into effect on 10th November 1948. Following this, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up in 1949 to realise the aims of the convention, one of which was “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.” This statement indicates the clear dual mandate of the IWC – both to provide conservation for whale stocks and to manage their use. It is this very definition that has been the source of ongoing problems.

Japan has always been an adamant supporter of whaling and when it joined the IWC in 1951, its whaling policy was consistent with that of other members – whaling nations concerned about depleted stocks. By the middle of the 20th century whale stocks had still not started to recover from the intense exploitation of the preceding decades. The global environmental movement of the 1970s prompted anti-whaling nations to join the IWC, changing the composition of the institution from mainly whaling nations to anti-whaling nations. A ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling was finally introduced in 1986 after initially being objected to by original IWC members. Japan, steadfast to continue whaling, initially objected to this resolution, meaning it was not bound by the IWC decisions and thus managed to continue its whaling tradition and culture.

To this day, Japan is still pursuing its right to continue commercial whaling. Considering that Japan is internationally cooperative regarding other environmental issues, there must be a specific reason for its pro-whaling stance. It’s easy to assume that Japan’s non-compliance with the majority of the international community is based on an economic interest. However, the whaling industry only employs a few hundred individuals and does not generate huge profits. Instead, it is a Japanese tradition; the long history of whales being regarded as part of Japanese culinary culture. Any opposition to this, the Japanese see as a threat to their national identity and often compare it to ‘the English being asked to go without fish and chips or the Americans to go without hamburgers.’

The recent move by Australia to file charges against Japan echo the feelings of many western governments and environmental groups who have harshly criticised the Japanese culture of whaling, resulting in increased media attention in recent years. They often regard Japan’s whale hunts as inhumane and unnecessary, not to mention the threat that they pose to whale populations. Although many western countries did used to hunt whales in the past, the demand for whales and their oil died out after petroleum became more readily available. On the other side of the world, the eastern island of Japan was not only hunting whales for oil, but for meat too. It is this demand for whale meat on the domestic market that means the industry is viable in Japan.

Despite the international moratorium, countries continue to hunt whales to this day within the IWC guidelines, citing one of three reasons for doing so. If a country formally objects to the IWC, declaring itself exempt, it may continue to hunt whales. This is the reason cited by Norway and Iceland for their continuation of whaling.  Under the convention, the IWC allows for ‘aboriginal subsistence whaling’ and the IWC grants permits to indigenous groups who have put forward requests to the IWC to hunt whales on the basis of nutritional or cultural needs. Under current IWC regulations, this kind of whaling is permitted for Denmark, the Russian Federation, St Vincent and the Grenadines and the USA. Finally, IWC member nations can issue unilateral ‘scientific permits’ in order to hunt whales for scientific research. Article VIII of the IWC convention states that governments of the IWC may grant a special permit to its nationals authorising them to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research on the condition the results are made available to the IWC. The government can decide the numbers of whales to be killed and any whales taken under these special permits can then be processed and sold. It was this article that Japan turned to in late March of 1985 and has continued to use ever since.

Many anti-whaling nations regard this ‘scientific research’ as a mere cover story for commercial whaling. Japanese vessels hunt and kill whales as their main research method and then sell and distribute the meat within Japan as a product. Tokyo uses the exact reason for the introduction of the moratorium as an excuse for continuing to hunt whales arguing that uncertainty about the number of whales means research is needed. The IWC has repeatedly issued resolutions asking Japan to refrain from such research activities as the methodology employed and research questions addressed are not essential to the estimation of whale stock populations. It has become obvious that these ‘research expeditions’ are simply a cover-up for cultural motivations to continue whaling. But due to the rules of the convention, the Commission has no power to stop the use of this completely legal loophole that allows Japan to continue its cultural practice. Although Japan could object to the moratorium, like Norway does, and continue to whale, it is unlikely that they would want to risk their international relations.

The outcome of the case at the International Court of Justice is unlikely to be known until the end of the year. Whether the Japanese are forced to give up their research expeditions or not, there is no doubt that there will be important cultural impacts to deliberate. Having considered the history of the IWC and the arguments for and against whaling, it is obvious that there are rarely two sides to a story and environmental policy decisions need to be made in light of different value systems if they are to be effective, even if the reasons are not related to science.

Alice Hazelton is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College and is one of the editors of Refractive Index.

Image Credit: JIGGS IMAGES (via Flickr)