Japan Drops out of the fight

By Roger Payne

On Boxing Day of 2018 (the day after Christmas) Japan gave a late Christmas gift to the world by announcing that she will be withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) starting July 1, 2019. Her move unleashed a storm of criticism by many NGOs and nations with a history of promoting whale conservation. They emphasized the problems Japan’s decision poses to the world. However, like most major steps it has both positive and negative consequences. Or, more accurately, in this case, every one of its negative consequences is matched by one or more positive consequences.

But regardless of how you look at it, it is a huge turning point.


Minuses and Plusses

The purely negative side of Japan’s departure from the IWC is that she will start commercial whaling again. I wrote a blog about how that’s what she’s always done, only she changed the name to “scientific whaling” (are we to suppose that it was to protect the innocent?).

She has stated that she intends to kill whales in her own North Pacific waters. However, she has changed her stated intentions before, and there is nothing to prevent her from changing them again.

The biggest plus is that by quitting the IWC, Japan has passed the baton (her control of that entity) to the conservationist nations who will now, very likely have enough votes to create such protective measures as a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (a step Japan has blocked for years).

A possible downside re sanctuaries would be if Japan starts bullying any of several international organizations that deal with the conservation of marine resources in efforts to get them to outlaw the legality of sanctuaries altogether—a catastrophe should she try, and succeed.

A big plus is that with Japan gone from the IWC, conservationists may even be able to go a step further and ban whaling on ethical grounds. There is important work in progress by the Non-Human Rights Project in which Steven Wise, founder and president, is trying to persuade common law courts that non-human animals are legal persons and have the capacity for legal rights, including such fundamental rights as bodily liberty and bodily integrity. His ultimate goal is to achieve legal personhood for one or more non-human animals.  So far his clients include chimpanzees, an elephant and dolphins. Banning whaling on ethical grounds is a natural next step. It would also be a landmark moment in human enlightenment—supporting our claim that we represent intelligent life on earth.

Another positive fallout from Japan’s withdrawal is that whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary will end next year. That’s a big win, though strange to say, Japan announced her intentions to do this while her whalers were in the Antarctic killing whales—for ‘science,’ of course. Do you suppose that Japan wants us to think of her final season as a sentimental journey—her last tryst with ‘science’ for the sake of Auld Lang Syne?

When he made the announcement that Japan was leaving the IWC, Yoshihide Suga, Secretary General of the Japanese Cabinet said: “Japan’s basic policy of promoting sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence has not changed. And under that policy we have decided to resume commercial whaling.”

He’s dead right that the “scientific evidence on which Japan has based her whaling policy “has not changed.” But that’s because the “research” on which it is based is Science Light—not strong enough to justify changing the name of what she was doing from “commercial whaling” to ‘scientific whaling.’ It was dead obvious from the start that the real reason Japan made the change was to enable her to keep whaling after commercial whaling became illegal. She started ‘scientific whaling’ as a lie and so she’s ending it with another lie—that her policy is; “promoting sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence.” No it’s not; it’s based on getting the maximum profit from ocean resources—sustainability be damned.

“You’re not being fair,” I hear you say.

But is claiming that you are doing scientific research when what you are doing is running a commercial meat business fair? No, it’s lying.

But perhaps lying by governments is such an acceptable practice now that no one minds when a country does it. If so, I suppose that no one in Japan minds it when my country, the USA, lies.


Financial Consequences:

Another downside of Japan’s departure that will affect both the IWC and whales is that because she always had the biggest delegation, she always paid the most dues to the IWC. She also paid the dues and costs of a bevy of other nations, all of which will probably now withdraw since they never seemed to have any interest in the whaling issue except that Japan treated their delegates to first class air travel to interesting destinations and put them up in classy hotels—plus other “perks(!)”  Japan’s largesse always seemed an awful lot like a quid pro quoto get her covey of non-whaling nations to rubberstamp her votes. I suspect those benefactors regret that Japan has withdrawn from the IWC more than the rest of us do.

However, they might be able to keep the Yen flowing by selling Japan the rights to kill the whales in their exclusive economic zones. After all, if, for the last 20+ years, your country has been willing to sell its international reputation to Japan for a few Yen, by now it surely must have grown used enough to international criticism to feel comfortable in just ignoring it.


The Opportunities Now Open to Japan:

Another downside of Japan leaving the IWC is that she won’t have to adhere to any of the restrictions to which IWC whalers must adhere. She can kill protected species, disregard size limits, ignore seasons, ignore the ban on using factory ships in the Atlantic, kill whales accompanied by calves (and, Hell… kill the calves too). And she won’t have to kill whales humanely, she doesn’t even have to claim that she’s doing so. However, in that regard I suppose that she’ll be more honest than IWC whalers are since there’s no such thing as a humane way to kill a whale; it is purely brutal no matter what you call it or how you slice it.


Hunting in New Places and for New Species:

I worry about things like the small population of Mediterranean fin whales that lives in the Ligurian Sea. It’s in an area that is bordered by countries some of which have pretty terrible financial problems. They may find it all but impossible to resist receiving a few million Yen for selling Japan the rights to hunt those finbacks in their waters.

But any idea that whale meat sales can be stopped forever weakens and dies in face of the rate at which the global, human population is still increasing (actually, still accelerating). We have gone from eating baleen whales to competing with them for the krill on which they rely. I fear that human hunger will prove to be an unstoppable force for eating the meat of baleen whales, even though you and I may find eating a species with a brain larger than ours no different than eating a chimpanzee, bonobo, or orangutan (although, come to think of it, there are already humans doing just that). However, when you, and particularly your family are hungry enough, all of us, you, me, and they (your family)  would be shocked to see what we would eat gratefully.


Is the Market Too Small Now?

 My main hope is that there’s not enough of a market for whale products to support new fisheries in new places, or for whaling on hitherto unexploited species. But surely, that’s only temporary. According to one of Japan’s principal newspapers, Asahi, the meat from whales and dolphins constitutes only 0.1% (that’s a thousandth) of all of the meat Japan consumes each year, and sales of whale meat are so meager that the government gives it away free to schools for children’s lunches.


Poisoned Food:

There is, however, a terrible downside to this “generosity,” for the baleen whale meat the children get free is from minke whales which feed at the tops of ocean food pyramids and are highly contaminated with all of the poisons that accumulate in prey species in that pyramid. And because none of species on which the whales feed can get rid of the poisons by breaking them down (they are indigestible), they have to store them in their bodies until their toxic burden gets passed along to whatever predator, man or animal, kills and eats them. As the Oscar-winning film The Coveshowed, the Taiji, dolphin fishing cooperative gives the meat from the dolphins it kills to local schools for children’s lunches ,even though dolphin meat is often seriously contaminated with Endocrine Disrupting Compounds (EDCs)—the worst of the chemicals in seafood that humans synthesize. Because most of these molecules never existed before we made them, no organism has had enough time yet to evolve a way to get rid of them. The result is that they accumulate in sea life and seriously damage the health, normal development and mental functioning of the organisms that accumulate high concentrations of these synthetic poisons.

There seems to be an upside to the downside of whales accumulating dangerous contaminant burdens; it could prevent humans from eating whale meat. However it has been known for years that whale meat is laced with synthetic contaminants and it has yet to make much difference. A few people stop eating whale meat when they hear it’s poisonous, but it’s difficult to give up something you have liked for a long time (think, cigarettes).

That whale meat carries high contaminant loads is well known in Japan. Some of the leading research demonstrating that fact was done by Japanese scientists with world class scientific credentials. However, the whalers largely ignore the fact that the meat they’re providing is contaminated; instead they mislead children and people too poor to afford animal protein by emphasizing how nutritious whale meat is.

In the late 1970s, drift netting for fish grew exponentially in Sri Lankan waters, and by the early 1980s when I was there there was a small industry that sold its dolphin bycatch for pennies-a-pound in the local fish market. Soon, the poorest people with little access to animal protein developed a taste for dolphin meat, and in just a few months there was a full-blown fishery that was no longer supplied just by the bycatch but by an intentional catch, even though dolphins were protected there, thanks to a recently passed law and to old social traditions.


Why is Japan Quitting the IWC?

A big question is: why is Japan leaving the IWC? She says she’s leaving to restart commercial whaling. But, of course she has never done anything but commercial whaling; 20+ years ago she simply changed its name to, “Scientific Whaling” because whaling to collect scientific information is an activity that member nations of the IWC are allowed to pursue (it’s better known as a loophole). But, as if to reassure her skeptical opponents that what she was doing isn’t really science, Japan published only a handful of papers (none of them significant contributions) about her ‘important discoveries’ during the 20+ years she was engaged in pursuing her false claim that minke whales were decimating fish populations, and that the information she was collecting by killing them was essential for estimating whale populations. Her sightings data were an important contribution, sure, but killing whales to get “essential information?” No.

It seems clear enough that another big factor in Japan’s motivation to leave the commission is that she believes that it will trigger the collapse of the IWC and with it the conservation laws Japan’s whalers despise. However, if it doesn’t collapse, other ways exist that she may use to try to destroy it.


What Can You and I Do?

The IWC could be a useful organization if it reflected the major changes that have occurred since it was created 70+ years ago—a time when killing whales was an unexamined and therefore acceptable way of harvesting the seas. But now, murdering such intelligent, beautiful, mysterious, fellow travelers, to turn them into dogfood, margarine, and cosmetics is something that produces near-universal abhorrence. It’s as ghastly a mistake as slavery was, and as terrible a force in stunting the lives of both the exploiter and the exploited (of both slave-owner and slave; of both whaler and whale).

Our principal objective must be to change the IWC from a whaler’s club to something that exists to benefit whales. As a first step we can change the current wording of the commission’s function from: “…to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry” to just: “…to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks.

We could also work to change the IWC’s goofy definition of “whale” from just the nine, so-called “great whales” (Right, Bowhead, Grey, Blue, Finback, Sei, Brydes, Minke and Sperm) to what “whale” means in every other scientific sense and publication, anywhere but at the IWC. It means all cetaceans (i.e., all of the roughly 100 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, or, if you prefer an older definition: a whale is a mammal that spouts and has a horizontal tail.)

After Japan and her paid covey of phony whaling fans leaves the IWC we could also use the power of the IWC conservation nations to create a ban on whaling based on the increasing evidence that whales are self-aware, sentient beings with brains complex enough to experience emotions. Those are conditions that make them no longer ‘things’ to be owned but ‘beings’ that are capable of personhood—a characteristic that makes it unethical to kill them.

My faith is in the youth of the world. My young Japanese friends show deep empathy for living creatures, and they, along with many of the world’s youth have already begun, quietly, to refuse eating whale meat—a behavior that will eventually starve out the industry. And if it does end, then (hopefully) both the future political cost, and the costs of building and operating ships large enough and fast enough to kill whales may become too great for Japan’s whalers to afford, and they won’t find it economically possible to start up whaling from scratch again. Of course, if they join NAMMCO, the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (a whalers’ club formed in 1992 containing Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands) Japan’s whalers might find it possible to overcome that financial barrier. If they don’t join, then even the knowledge of how to make whaling pay may eventually die out in Japan, and the kind of peace that whales enjoyed before we appeared and learned how to move across the face of the sea will return again to their ocean world.

However, I see no way that the hoped-for end of whaling to happen unless the fascination and affection that people have only very recently granted to whales can be sustained. And that means that probably the strongest thing you and I can do is to teach today’s children the joys of seeing and thinking about whales—to make sure that children experience personal encounters with whales and are so fascinated by them that they incorporate whales in their stories, poetry, music, dance, drama, painting, sculpture and every art form and expression of creativity that can speak to the human heart. For I believe that the only realistic hope for keeping these great, gentle, cloud-like beings alive and present in the sea is to build them into human culture until the idea  of killing, or eating, or enslaving, or even disparaging a whale or a dolphin by considering it a commodity to be sold or owned is as abhorrent to future peoples as slavery is to us.

© Roger Payne

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