Japan said on Wednesday that it would withdraw from an international agreement and resume commercial whaling, a defiant move to prop up an industry that still has cultural significance there, despite plummeting demand for whale meat.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said the country would leave the International Whaling Commission, which established a moratorium on hunting whales that took effect in 1986.
The international agreement never stopped Japanese whaling, because it allowed the country to continue killing whales for scientific research while selling the meat. Critics considered the research a sham, little more than a cover for commercial whaling.
In recent years, Japan has had an annual quota in the Antarctic of 333 minke whales, which in the 2017-18 hunting season included 122 pregnant females. As part of its withdrawal from the international commission, Japan will stop its annual hunts in the Antarctic and limit whalers to its own waters. Commercial whaling will resume in July, Mr. Suga said.
Mr. Suga said the International Whaling Commission focused too much on conservation and had failed to develop a sustainable whaling industry, which is one of its stated goals.
“In its long history, Japan has used whales not only as a source of protein but also for a variety of other purposes,” Mr. Suga said in a statement. “Engagement in whaling has been supporting local communities, and thereby developed the life and culture of using whales.”
Whaling has long been abhorred by conservationists trying to protect the animals. Sam Annesley, the executive director of Greenpeace Japan, condemned the government’s decision.
“The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures,” he said in a statement. “The government of Japan must urgently act to conserve marine ecosystems, rather than resume commercial whaling.”
Whale meat was once popular in Japan but is far less so now. Japanese people ate more than 233,000 tons of whale meat per year in 1962, but just 3,000 tons in 2016, according to government data. As of 2013, the industry employed fewer than 1,000 people, and in recent years it has been dependent on government subsidies.
Still, defending the industry carries a nationalist appeal, with international criticism of whaling sometimes seen as an imposition of Western values.
Leaders in Australia are “extremely disappointed” by Japan’s decision, according to a joint statement by Marise Payne, the minister for foreign affairs, and Melissa Price, the minister for the environment. Australia maintains a sanctuary for whales, dolphins and porpoises that includes parts of the Antarctic, and it has clashed with Japan over its annual hunts there.
“Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling,” the ministers said. “We will continue to work within the commission to uphold the global moratorium on commercial whaling.”
But the ministers said they welcomed Japan’s exit from the Antarctic and the Australian Whale Sanctuary, which they said “will finally be true sanctuaries for all whales.”
From 2005 to 2017, Sea Shepherd, an environmentalist group, used its own ships to try to interfere with Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic. As the Japanese news media reported last week that a withdrawal from the whaling commission was being considered, Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s founder, said in a statement that he considered it good news. He said it would end Japan’s activities in the Antarctic while making Sea Shepherd’s “objective of shutting down these poachers much easier.”
“This means that Japan is now openly declaring their illegal whaling activities,” he said. “No more pretense of research whaling. With this announcement, Japan has declared themselves as a pirate whaling nation.”
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