Japan’s bid to overturn whaling ban

Japan is again seeking to have the ban on commercial whaling lifted at the Brazil meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) with a "Way Forward" reform proposal.

It suggests a Sustainable Whaling Committee be formed to manage commercial and indigenous whaling. Their proposal states: “Science is clear: there are certain species of whales whose population is healthy enough to be harvested sustainably.”

The international moratorium on commercial whaling, in place since 1986, was intended to protect whales from being hunted to extinction.

Japan killed more than 430,000 whales between 1945 and 1986. Since the ban it has killed nearly 17,000 for scientific research. The meat from these whales can legally be sold domestically.

Japan has also proposed the IWC's voting rules are changed. At present, a three-quarter majority is required. Japan seeks to change this to a simple majority.

Its proposal labels the IWC as a “forum for confrontation” which is “unable to make any substantial decisions on its core functions” including management of whale resources due to the fundamentally different positions of members.

“Japan’s proposal is an attempt to restore the function of the IWC as a resource management organisation with a novel and drastic approach.”

A Japanese spokesperson told the commission on the first day of the five-day meeting: “It has become clear the IWC has not been playing the role of whale resource management organisation that should serve not only for conservation but also for sustainable use of whales.”

“Japan’s proposal is an attempt to restore the function of the IWC as a resource management organisation with a novel and drastic approach.”

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said he believes the IWC is functioning well and with the world focused on conservation, now was not the time to “step backwards" he said.

“New Zealand continues to support the moratorium on commercial whaling. We want to see the Commission’s efforts on whale conservation strengthened, not weakened.”

He said New Zealand continues to support the Commission’s role in non-lethal research.

“We know from past whaling activity it doesn’t take very long to really cause detrimental impacts on stocks and populations.”

University of Auckland’s associate professor Rochelle Constantine is part of a group studying whales through the IWC. The Southern Ocean Research Partnership conducts its research by using tags and taking small tissue samples.

“We’ve worked really hard to show Japan you don’t need to kill whales to study them,” she said.

The non-lethal research the partnership conducts uncovers important information including a whale's age, sex, breeding grounds, what it eats and whether it is pregnant.

Constantine described Japan’s statement saying the “science is clear” in their proposal as “a bit disingenuous” when it comes to whale numbers.

"They are using some very broad statements to comment on multiple species, multiple populations throughout the world."

She said some populations are doing well since the moratorium on whaling but counts of whales might not reflect numbers in individual groups.

“For example, with humpback whales in Antarctic feeding grounds you have whales from a whole bunch of different breeding grounds throughout Oceania and Australia.

“You don’t know if you were to go and kill one, that you are killing a humpback whale from East Australia, where the numbers have recovered very well, or if you are killing a whale from Fiji where the numbers of whales are incredibly low.”

Constantine said the scientific community has a long way to go understand all the aspects of whale biology. Complicating the research is the fact scientists are studying “degraded populations”.

She’s against the proposal for commercial whaling to recommence.

For her whales can't be "harvested" in the same way kiwifruit can as the term 'harvest' implies there is some control over the production of whales.

She described long-lived and slow-breeding whales as less than ideal candidates for commercial fishing.

"Globally, when it comes to harvesting whales, we’ve shown we have very, very poor practice.

“We know from past whaling activity it doesn’t take very long to really cause detrimental impacts on stocks and populations. ”

Her hope is Japan’s reform proposal gets a "no" vote.

“I think it will be split, these votes usually are. This is not the first time Japan has raised this and it won’t be the last."

St. Lucia, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Russian Federation, Nicaragua and Mauritania have already expressed support for Japan’s proposal for sustainable whaling.

In previous years, Japan has had support from some Pacific nations as both sides of the commercial whaling debate have tried to swing the vote in their favour.

“We know certain individuals from countries and certain countries have been promised a lot and given a lot of either money or infrastructure to vote in favour of whaling. There are no secrets about that,” said Constantine.

The vote is likely to take place on Friday, the final day of the meeting.

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