Japan has announced that they will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and will start commercial whaling this year for the very first time after 30 years.

The news has brought criticism from anti-whaling groups and many others around the globe, with at the top Australia saying it was “extremely disappointed” and New Zealand has many times expressed regretting the resumption of the “out-dated and unnecessary” commercial killing of the ocean mammals.

Japan has been a member of the IWC since 1951 and commercial whale hunting has been banned since 1986 – this was the time when whale numbers dropped so low that they were on the brink of extinction.

But what was the reason for Japan’s unexpected decision especially after 30 years?

Well, Japan’s spokesman Yoshihide Suga accused the IWC of only concentrating on increasing the whale population rather that to fullfill the initial goal which was to make commercial whaling sustainable.

In the past 30 years Japan had continued to catch whales only under a scientific research programme, which was even allowed during the time of IWC ban. According to many reports anywhere from 250-1250 of the whales that are caught by Japan each year are to identify stock levels to find out if the whales are endangered or not, but it is widely believed that this was only a strategy to continue commercial whaling. But now with their latest decision Japan will start hunting once again in their territorial waters and economic zones and according to Mr Suga, they would no longer hunt whales in the Antarctic.

Ironically, Japan has argued many times that whaling was not only part of their tradition but also they needed to meet shortages on meat supplies. However, despite the increase in meat consumption after World War II, because of easy availability in other meats such as fish, chicken and red meat sourced from neighbouring countries whale meat only makes up 0.1% of Japan’s meat consumption. 

Why Are Whales Important?

Just like all living creatures, whales have a very important role in the food chain and they contribute to the balance of the marine ecosystem. Besides being predators that feed on fish and invertebrates and, as prey they are killed by vicious predators (The White Shark, Killer Whales aka Orca’s etc.) and of course by Man. Even after death they continue to contribute to the ecosystem, their carcasses sink and become new food to a host of scavenger organisms who decompose them into nutrients for other organisms. In a way they act like a pump that sends back the fish and zooplankton that they have ingested towards the surface in the form of nitrogen-rich matter. These nutrients are essential to the primary production of the marine ecosystem.

Whales are sentinels of the health of marine environments. They are found in all the world’s oceans, from coastal areas to the deep sea. As whales lie at the top of the food pyramid, any decline or increase in their population is an indication of a change in their habitat. Dany Zbinden of the organization Mériscope stresses the importance of protecting whales, as doing so will not only ensure the recovery of their own populations, but also the survival of other species in the marine ecosystem. Studying whales has led to numerous discoveries. To this day they serve as an inspiration in the development of new technologies such as watercraft sonar and wind turbine blades.

Moira Brown of the New England Aquarium also points out the commercial importance of whales. Whether through population census programs for recovery plans or observation activities catered to tourists, whales contribute to local economies thanks to people’s growing interest in them around the globe. Human activities such as chemical and noise pollution, entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes have greatly affected whale populations. Canada has the longest coastline in the world. Bordered by three oceans, the marine ecosystem is part of the country’s heritage. If humans threaten these populations by breaking the balance of the cycle, they must protect them in order that future generations can observe them and be inspired by them.

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Sources: International Whaling Commission & Whales Facts