The Hypocritical Whaling Debate

Japan stands accused at the International Court of Justice of disguising commercial whaling as scientific research, a violation of its international obligations. Japan’s lawyers really don’t have much of a case. Then again, in a larger sense, neither do the country’s accusers.

There’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around here. Japan’s whaling isn’t necessary for science, as it claims (and you have to ask if the country’s taste for whale meat is just a coincidence). On the other hand, Japan’s critics fail to mention that the 27-year-old blanket ban on commercial whaling wasn’t intended to be permanent and can’t any longer be justified on conservation grounds.

The arguments in the case, which wrapped up last month, confirm that Japan’s research on the roughly 500 whales it kills yearly is just a cloak of legitimacy. Countries can set any quota they like on whales killed for scientific purposes. Ultimately, though, Japan’s catch gets eaten. If the court justifies this whaling as scientific it will be endorsing blatant hypocrisy.

If Japan loses and nothing else happens, another kind of hypocrisy will prevail. Australia, which brought the case, complains that Japan’s program lacks the requirements of a genuine scientific endeavor: defined objectives, peer review and results. Yet Australia and other anti-whaling states ignore science when they insist on continuing the blanket ban. It was meant to enable species that had been overexploited to recover, and to give the International Whaling Commission time to assess whale stocks and improve its methods for establishing sustainable catches.

In 1994, the commission approved an updated system for limiting catches. It still hasn’t been put into effect because of divisions among the member states. Meanwhile, based on data showing some stocks were robust, Norway, which chose not to be bound by the moratorium, resumed commercial whaling in 1993. Iceland followed in 2006. In a way, Japan is paying the price for wishing to seem respectable.

The anti-whalers’ case is no longer mainly about conservation, the basis of the original international convention. Instead it’s about ethical and aesthetic objections to the killing of magnificent animals. Such objections aren’t invalid -- but they aren’t universally shared, and they weren’t the principle first agreed to.

Abolitionists say that hunted whales die painfully. All but about 140 of the 950 or so whales Norway, Iceland and Japan have taken in recent years were minke whales, which are small enough to kill instantaneously with modern explosive harpoons. It can take longer to harvest the larger whales -- although perhaps not as long as a bullfight, a spectacle subsidized by the anti-whaling European Union, for which 13,000 bulls die annually in Spain after being repeatedly goaded and stabbed. Let’s not dwell on the conditions suffered by animals in factory farms.

Japan has been a whaling nation for 1,000 years. If its scientific whaling program is deemed bogus, it’s unlikely to just dismantle its fleet. It has threatened to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission altogether, meaning it would set quotas and police them unilaterally, raising the risk of a return to unsustainable hunting. That wouldn’t help the whales.

A better outcome would be for the anti-whaling states to agree to lift the moratorium and let the commission concentrate on sustainable management of whale stocks. That would leave the court free to call commercial whaling commercial whaling without fear of collapsing the IWC system, and bring the Japanese industry under more effective supervision. It would also be a win for common sense and plain speaking, supposing that counts for something.

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