As It Happens

Japan's commercial whale hunt puts ocean health at risk, says conservationist

Conservationists are worried that Japan's decision to pull out of the International Whaling Commission will inspire other countries to do the same.

'It should be in all our interests to conserve whales, not to hunt them,' says Astrid Fuchs

A minke whale is lifted from a ship at Kushiro port, Hokkaido, in northern Japan, in September 2017. Japan officially announced Wednesday that it will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission and restart commercial whaling for the first time in over 30 years. (Jiji Press Japan/EPA-EFE)
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Conservationists are worried that Japan's decision to pull out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) will inspire other countries to do the same — jeopardizing efforts to protect the planet's oceans. 

Japan announced Wednesday that it is leaving the regulatory body to resume commercial whaling for the first time in 30 years, but said it would no longer hunt the creatures in the Antarctic.

Japan switched to what it calls "research whaling" after the IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in the 1980s, and now says stocks have recovered enough to resume commercial hunts.

Astrid Fuchs, program lead for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, disagrees with Japan's decision. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

Japan has continued to hunt whales for years under the guise of scientific research. So does this announcement of a resumption of commercial hunting really change anything?​

Yes, I'm afraid it changes the situation completely.

Though under the IWC, there was the loophole of scientific whaling, which Japan abused for actually commercial whaling. There was oversight by the IWC, so Japan had to abide by certain rules. Now this oversight is going to be lost.

In addition, we're really worried that it sets a precedent and that other countries might actually follow the lead now set by Japan and leave the commission if they're not happy with the current situation. 

This picture taken on April 26, 2014, shows local residents watching on a departing ceremony for the whaling fleets at Ayukawa port in Ishinomaki City. The whaling town of Ayukawa on Japan's northeast coast used to bustle with activity as fishermen brought their massive catch back to port, supporting a community of nearly 14,000 people. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

Japan has said, though, that it is going to abandon whaling outside its territorial waters. Is that not somewhat of a victory for opponents of whaling?

It's very good that Japan is abandoning whaling in Antarctica and the whale sanctuary. That's certainly good news.

But the downside is if they are looking to match the numbers they were taking in Antarctica, if they are looking at a situation where they want to provide the same amount of meat to the Japanese market, they will have to take those whales in their territorial waters.

We know that they intend to take minke ​whales, sei whales and Bryde's whales, which they said in the statement, but they didn't say anything about the numbers — only that they will look at IWC scientific committee advice for that.

We might just see a change in location, but not actually an improvement of the situation.

Bryde's whales, pictured here in the sea of Thailand's Gulf, are one of the species Japan says will be part of its commercial hunt. (Narong Sangnak/EPA)

Japan argues ... the types of whales it will hunt are not as at risk as they were in the past. Does the evidence support that view?

There are certainly whale populations that have at least partially recovered from industrial whaling, but we are really, really far away from a situation where we can say they have all recovered.

Most are still struggling. They are facing a multitude of man-made threats, like pollution, climate change, ocean noise and so on.

Astrid Fuchs is a policy manager and program lead for Whale and Dolphin Conservation. (Submitted by Astrid Fuchs/Whale and Dolphin Conservation)

You mentioned earlier concerns that other countries will now leave the International Whaling Commission. I mean, we know Norway and Iceland continue to hunt whale. How serious is that risk that there will be an abandonment of the kind of principles that you have pursued for so long?

We are very worried, for example, about South Korea, which has actually some demand for whale meat. They have a whale meat market, which is at the moment fed through by-caught whales, because it's legal to sell those whales that are caught in fisheries gear on the South Korean market. And they have actually expressed interest in resuming commercial whaling in the past.

I'm also worried about other whaling countries in terms of Japan's announcement that they might actually try and set up a new international body for the regulation of whaling.

If they find partners for that, that will really be a problem.

If Japan has got some point, though, in the fact that some of the whale populations have repaired themselves, does it not make sense that they do want to get out there and get some of this meat?

There is no real demand, so they would be creating a new market for something which, at the moment, isn't in demand.

Also, whales are still recovering. We don't know enough about the populations to know if they are able to withstand commercial whaling again, and they have to face all the other threats.

And in addition to that, we now know how important whales are actually for the ocean ecosystem. They are huge carbon sinks, for example. They fertilize the oceans. They help ... the oceans to create oxygen for us to breathe.

It should be in all our interests to conserve whales, not to hunt them. And we think that Japan is actually jeopardizing conservation efforts by their move. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Samantha Lui. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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