Don't move that blubber!

Japanese government's proposal to re-open international whale trade must be denied

Feature story - 30 October, 2002
Overexploit, cheat, deplete. The cycle of greed behind the global whaling industry drove one whale population after another toward oblivion. It wasn't until 1986 that a moratorium on all commercial whaling slowed this onslaught. Now, will a Japanese government proposal turn the clock back?

Japanese workers flense a whale on the deck of a factory ship Nisshin Maru in the Southern ocean.


This year the Japanese whaling fleet caught 684 whales, 440 of them from the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, a critical protected area for whales. The Japanese Fisheries Agency expanded its whaling to the North Pacific and is increasing quotas. Appallingly, they've added endangered Sei whales to their harpoon sights, and took 39 this year.

The Japanese government is putting a lot of effort into its campaign to resume large-scale commercial whaling and international trade in whale products, even encouraging children to become whale eaters by giving them price-slashed whale meat for lunch so they'll "understand how good it is".

In "Whale Hunters," a new BBC documentary, Masayuki Komatsu of Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries can be heard advising a Japanese whaling ship captain how to deal with Greenpeace protest boats: "When they approach, blow them out of the water."

Leaky treaties

But wait! Isn't there a total whaling ban? So how can Japan still be whaling?

The Japanese government uses a loophole in the international regulations to carry out "scientific whaling." Their "scientific" whale samples retail for around $US 100 million a year as a luxury food.

The Japanese government's "science" aims to prove that whales deplete the world's fish stocks. It's a self-serving research agenda with as much scientific rigor as an over-cooked ramen noodle. Over-fishing is to blame for collapsing fish stocks world-wide, not whales.

Not content with its deplorable domestic scam, the Japanese government is also trying to make international trade in whale products legal. They argue that Minke and Brydes whales are abundant enough to exploit commercially - despite the lack of accurate data on these whales' populations.

History repeats itself

History shows that in the conflict between greed and conservation, whales have always been the losers.

Individual whales have a high commercial value. But these animals also reproduce extremely slowly. So there's a huge economic incentive to catch whales, but no economic incentive to conserve because it brings an individual whaler no short-term benefit. Whalers inevitably submit to greed.

During the last half century, over-harvesting and fraud undermined IWC (International Whaling Commission) attempts to manage one crashing whale population after another. Quotas were exceeded by tens of thousands whales, and endangered species were illegally caught. In the Antarctic the Blue whale was hunted to near-extinction, then the Fin whale, followed by the Humpback and Sei whales. Only the1986 IWC moratorium ended the whale management charade. Some whale species, like the North Atlantic Right whale which was hunted to near extinction in the 19th century, have never recovered. The Antarctic Blue whales, the largest animals in the world, show little sign of recovery after almost 40 years of protection.

CITES support for IWC ban

The IWC whaling ban gains crucial support through another international treaty, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Whales are listed under CITES Appendix I, which protects them by banning international trade in whale products.

Down with downlisting!

The Japanese government has tried to overturn the trade ban at three previous CITES meetings and they're trying it again, even though previous efforts failed by wide margins. Next month when CITES member nations meet in Santiago, Chile, they will vote on two Japanese proposals to downlist Minke and Bryde's whales to Appendix II, a move which would open up whale products for regulated trade internationally.

The proposals in themselves are outrageous. The CITES Secretariat has recommended member nations to oppose the proposals because they are contrary to CITES own rules, and its long-standing agreement to harmonise CITES regulation on whales with the IWC ban.

Total loss of control

The consequences of downlisting for whales would be disastrous. Despite the current total bans on harvest and trade, whaling of endangered whale species continues. Even the renegade whaling nations can't control their dubious dealings. DNA tests on whale meat purchased in Japan shows that, in addition to species the Japanese government gives permits for, at least five other species are being harvested and sold. Most disturbingly, meat from a Gray whale from the western North Pacific - the world's most endangered population of great whales, has been found on sale in Japan. Controls are so lax that even horsemeat is passed off as whale!

With the cover provided by a legal trade and the economic incentive of expanded markets, illegal, whaling and illegal trade would rapidly escalate.

Noway's golden blubber bank

Norway will be the main beneficiary if Japan's proposals are agreed in Santiago. Since they resumed commercial whaling in 1993, warehouses have been piled high with whale blubber Norwegians won't eat. The Norwegian whalers and whale traders look longingly to the Japanese market where they could sell the stockpiled blubber and make a handsome profit.

Recently Norway broke the CITES ban to export whale blubber to Iceland, another country which wants to resume trade with Japan. The export was done for purely political reasons, as a way to pressure countries into agreeing the Japanese downlisting proposals.

However Norwegian whale blubber packs a poisonous punch. Tests conducted this year show a thumb-sized piece of the blubber will expose Icelandic diners to PCBs, DDT and even fire-retardants. Some of the toxins may exceed by many times recommended.

Thanks, we've got enough problems

Of course, pollutants are bad for the whales too and may be affecting the whales' ability to reproduce. Whales are also up against climate change, ozone depletion and ultraviolet B radiation, noise pollution, prey depletion, capture in fish nets, habitat degradation and even ship strikes. Many of these factors' influence on beleaguered whale populations are still poorly understood.

Take the year 1999, when alarmed scientists saw twice as many Gray whale strandings along the Eastern Pacific seaboard as any previous year. Many of the animals were emaciated. Scientists suspect that climate change reduced the prey species these highly endangered whales depend on, a factor which led to their strandings.

Take Action!

Despite the alarming situation for the world's whale populations, you can help put a stop to the international trade in whale products.

CITES member countries will meet in Santiago from November 3rd to 17th to vote on the downlisting of whales and other issues. Greenpeace believes these proposals shouldn't even be on that table. The CITES Secretariat has also recommended that countries oppose the proposals since they contradict CITES' own rules.

Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany and the US have championed the conservation of whale populations since the whaling moratorium. Fax them and ask them to stand up now and take the lead in rejecting the Japanese proposals to downlist Bryde's and Minke whales. The Japanese Fisheries Agency shouldn't be wasting valuable conference time, but you should take the time to call on these governments to get Japan to withdraw their proposals.