Government delegates and experts from prowhaling and antiwhaling nations have gathered in the traditional whaling town of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, for the Thursday start of the International Whaling Commission’s 54th annual conference.

While the stage is set for fierce debate, most veteran observers do not expect any major developments, such as an end to the moratorium on commercial whaling agreed on in 1982.

That Japan and other prowhaling nations will remain at loggerheads with antiwhaling nations is a given.

Just how these hostilities will play out in the conference, which runs through late May, is unclear.

Japan and like-minded whaling allies will push for the adoption of the Revised Management Scheme, which would effectively usher in a new era of controlled commercial whaling.

Under the proposed RMS, nations could harvest any of the 13 whale species protected under the whaling treaty once its population has recovered to more than 60 percent of its estimated virgin stock level, or its estimated population prior to commercial whaling.

Under the RMS system, calculations show that up to 2,000 minke whales in the Antarctic could be caught, according to Japanese fisheries officials. This is based on a controversial population estimate, which is currently under review, that puts the population as high as 760,000.

Antiwhaling nations will probably hold out — as they have done since the scheme was first submitted in the mid-1990s — for certain amendments that would-be whaling nations won’t swallow.

These include stringent monitoring activities to be paid for by whaling nations.

The Shimonoseki conference is the first IWC annual meeting in Japan since the 1993 conference, which remains a bitter memory for Japan as it led to the establishment of the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary.

Participants will hold committee and subcommittee meetings, with some sessions open to observers and some held behind closed doors.

How issues, including the establishment of a new sanctuary and resumption of commercial whaling, will develop will not be clear until the ballot-casting plenary session during the week of May 20.

“We just plan to do what we have been doing every year, which is call for sustainable use of whales based on scientific data,” said Masayuki Komatsu, deputy commissioner of Japan’s committee delegation and counselor for the Fisheries Resource Management Department at the Fisheries Agency.

“The biggest question is how much this (view) has permeated the committee.”

In 1982, the IWC agreed to initiate a temporary moratorium on whaling while stocks could be assessed. The moratorium took effect in 1986.

To the chagrin of would-be whaling nations and the delight of animal rights groups, the moratorium continues.

The support of three-quarters of IWC members is needed to resume commercial whaling under the RMS.

Whaling restart unlikely

While there has been a slight shift by IWC members toward support of the RMS system, the consensus among observers is that it will be impossible for Japan and its sympathizers to muster enough support to bring about a restart of commercial whaling this year.

Japanese fisheries officials hope, nevertheless, that this will be the first year since 1988 that the IWC fails to pass a resolution condemning Japan’s research whaling.

“The balance of (prowhaling and antiwhaling) countries is a big issue that we are very worried about,” said Nanami Kurasawa of the Tokyo-based Dolphin & Whale Action Network.

“Iceland has said it will participate this year and wants to regain voting rights, and Russia has taken the same position as Japan and will be able to cast a vote this year,” she said.

In recent years, antiwhaling countries’ dominance of the IWC has slowly eroded.

Antiwhaling groups contend that Japan uses financial aid — especially fisheries aid — to recruit IWC members to support its position.

At least one high-level fisheries official, in a media interview, has endorsed the idea using Japan’s overseas aid toward such ends. But as an organization, the Fisheries Agency denies the accusation, saying that it gives aid to countries opposed to whaling as well.

At last year’s meeting in London, 20 nations voted against resuming commercial whaling, while 15 adopted positions akin to Japan’s.

The voting arithmetic is unclear, as Russia, which has paid its committee dues, has a vote to cast, and Japanese officials speculate that at least one antiwhaling country, Argentina, will skip Shimonoseki.

Iceland, which is lobbying to rejoin the IWC after leaving it in 1992 to whale outside of the organization’s control, may also reacquire voting rights.

What would be the implications of such a shift?

In practical terms, probably not much. In symbolic terms, however, it could be of immeasurable significance.

One or two swing votes could feasibly deprive whaling opponents of a simple majority, stifling a resolution urging Japan to cease its research whaling program, Komatsu said.

Such a tilt in the balance of power could also mean less resistance against Japan’s drive to resume commercial whaling.

Still, Japan will be strongly criticized over its plan submitted to the IWC earlier this year to expand the scope of its research whaling catch.

This year it has set its sights on catching up to 440 minke whales from the Antarctic; 150 from the North Pacific, including 50 from along the coast; 10 sperm whales; 50 Bryde’s whales; and 50 sei whales. The 50 coastal minkes and 50 sei whales are additions to last year’s goals.

Gradually expanded catch

Citizens’ groups point out that the government has been expanding its research whaling catch gradually from a self-imposed quota of about 300 Antarctic minke whales in the 1987-88 season.

Antiwhaling NGOs slam Japan’s research program, although some scientists acknowledge that the program has yielded important data, including trends in the chemical pollution of whale meat.

The environmental group Greenpeace, among others, has cast a suspicious eye on the coastal minke whale hunt that will start this year.

Greenpeace views the maneuver as an underhanded attempt to jump-start the business of small-scale coastal whalers who have relied on smaller cetaceans since the moratorium took effect.

Skeptics point out that the additional coastal minke catch is no different in scope from concessions to the moratorium that Japan has requested, in vain, from the IWC since 1988.

About 25,000 minke whales are thought to inhabit the Northern Pacific Ocean.

Tokyo counters that research whaling is necessary if Japan is to demonstrate that commercial whaling is viable, as well as to establish the volume and variety of fish consumed by the whales.

Government officials are eager to point out that the IWC treaty was penned “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.”

In recent years, the government has taken a new and controversial tack, claiming that whales are consuming several times the annual human catch of fish and endangering marine ecosystems.

Many NGOs and marine scientists strongly dispute this as an oversimplified view. Criticism may also be leveled at Japan over an expose by a former whaling company executive last year, in which he detailed how whalers systematically deceived authorities, secretly capturing undersized whales and underreporting their catch.

Whistle-blower cries foul

The author of the account will submit a paper relating his experience of rampant underreporting of catches while other experts will discuss how underreporting may have skewed whale population estimates.

The Fisheries Agency has said it is looking into the whaling executive’s claims, but Komatsu said the author has refused to meet with agency officials, leading him to doubt the veracity of his story.

Despite the fiery debate expected in Shimonoseki, the issue is less contentious domestically.

Opinion polls in Japan indicate that more people are for whaling than against it, but indifference appears to be the dominant sentiment.

“Public opinion” varies depending on who conducts the poll and what questions are asked.

According to a recent opinion poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun, 47 percent favored whaling while 36 percent opposed it.

According to a government-commissioned study that featured different phrasing, however, nearly 75 percent of people supported whaling.

Major rifts aside, whaling opponents and proponents seem to have one thing in common: both believe the other side is flouting the whaling treaty.

Some observers worry that a continued standoff could undermine the IWC regime itself, a scenario that has led some NGOs to adopt more conciliatory positions.

Spurred by fears that Japan’s growing catch of whales under its research program and other nations’ whaling without a managed scheme could spur an uncontrolled resurgence in whaling and the whale meat trade, the Worldwide Fund for Nature Japan has recently said that commercial whaling could be acceptable within the context of a “strict, effective and precautionary” system.

“Whaling without a strict management system is the scariest thing,” said Tetsu Sato, conservation director at WWF Japan.

Norway objected to the moratorium before it went into effect and is thus allowed to continue commercial whaling under treaty rules. Likewise, Japan is given carte blanche to conduct research whaling activities.

“Right now, the IWC is not in control (of whaling),” Sato said. “Seeing that the whales are taken under a proper managed system is the most important thing,” he said.

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