The Success of the International Whaling Commission and Japan's Decision to Withdraw
The International Whaling Commission [IWC] is one of the great success stories of international conservation efforts. Yes, Japan is a problem, but it's the exception that proves the rule. Most nations support and have lived up to their obligations under The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) of 1946. As a result, commercial whaling is little more than a relic of the past and most whale species have recovered from the brink of extinction.
The IWC is a regulatory body made up of representatives from the signatory nations and tasked with enforcing the ICRW treaty. After an inauspicious beginning, the organization ramped up its oversight in the 1970s as industrial-scale commercial whaling threatened many species with extinction. and "save the whale" campaigns promoted conservation efforts. Finally, in 1982 representatives of the IWC agreed on a complete moratorium on commercial whaling. However, there was an exception made for nations to hunt whales for purposes of scientific research. Japan, among several other nations, has abused the exception to continue whaling, although at a reduced level.
Overall, the IWC's moratorium has been successful in helping many whale species to recover. For instance, humpback whales were close to extinction in the 1960s, but have recovered to a healthy population of 30,000 or more. Others, like the right and blue whales are taking longer to recover and are still considered endangered. You can find the status of all whale species at the IWC's website here.
Despite these gains, Japan announced last week that it will withdraw from the ICRW and return to commercial whaling. A small number of Japanese still eat whale meat and Japan has always bridled under the IWC's yoke. It's not good news, but it may not impact whale populations as much as one might fear. They have promised to whale only within their Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] and their fleets have primarily focused on Minke whales in recent years. Minkes are not endangered and may number up to 500,000.
Moreover, Japan's decision may actually signal the death knell of the commercial whaling industry. Japan has said that it will no longer subsidize whaling as it did when whales were hunted under the IWC's "scientific research exception program". It's not clear at all that the industry can survive without government subsidies.
The Telegraph UK: "Japan may have harpooned itself in the foot with its decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission and to resume commercial whaling, with fisheries companies here warning that the industry will quickly become economically unviable."
"Officials say that there is little demand for whale meat because so few people now purchase it. In 1962, around 233,000 tons of whale meat were sold in supermarkets and restaurants across Japan; in recent years, that figure has fallen to around 3,000 tons and the industry has only survived because it was heavily subsidised by the government. If those subsidies are no longer available as the whaling is commercial instead of government-sponsored research, then the industry will struggle to survive."
And if commercial whaling can't survive on its own in Japan, it probably couldn't survive anywhere. It would be a wonderful irony if the Japanese decision to withdraw from the ICRW proved that.