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International Whalefare: The case for legalized whaling

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) passed a landmark moratorium that made all commercial whale hunts illicit. Despite this ban, individuals in Japan and Norway continue to hunt hundreds of whales annually, driven by deep-seated cultural and political motivations. While the environmental impacts of contemporary whaling are minimal, Japanese and Norwegian evasions of the 1982 moratorium set a troubling precedent. Their circumvention normalizes defection from international conservation agreements, consequently endangering prospects for global cooperation. Therefore, a new approach to the international whaling regime—one centered around regulation rather than prohibition— must be considered. 

The 1982 IWC moratorium exists within a larger ecosystem of whaling law. The 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) established the IWC and the basic rules of the modern international whaling regime. Despite this effort, the ICRW contains three major loopholes. First, Article 5(3) allows any IWC member state to exempt itself from a specific regulation by “objecting” within 90 days of its passage. Second, Article 11 permits member states to withdraw from the IWC without penalty. Third, Article 8 exempts “scientific” whaling programs from standard regulation. For its first 36 years, the IWC set weak and often ineffective international whaling quotas. In 1982, faced with rapidly depleting whale stocks and growing opposition to whaling, the IWC declared all commercial hunts illegal. Nevertheless, Japan and Norway have frequently used the ICRW loopholes to justify their post-moratorium whaling. 

Following the passage of the 1982 moratorium, Japan submitted a formal ICRW Article 5(3) objection. Three years later, it withdrew its objection, accepting the international agreement, but this reversal was mere political theater. In 1987, Japan launched a state-sponsored scientific whaling program named JARPA. The program claimed to require the use of “lethal collection methods”—i.e., hunting—to assess Antarctic minke whales’ population health. Japan claimed that Article 8 of the ICRW exempted scientific whaling from standard regulation, allowing JARPA to circumvent the 1982 moratorium. Conveniently, however, JARPA and subsequent programs’ alleged scientific samples have also been used for commercial sale

The international community has consistently rejected the legitimacy of Japan’s scientific whaling program. Most notably, in the 2010 case Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v. Japan), the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected JARPA’s scientific rationale and ordered Japan to end the program. Japan, ignoring the Court’s ruling, instead launched a new research program and ceased recognition of ICJ jurisdiction on all matters pertaining to living marine resources. As a further affront, Japan fully withdrew from the IWC and resumed explicit commercial whaling in 2019. 

Norway also submitted an ICRW Article 5(3) objection to the 1982 moratorium. The nation briefly operated a pseudoscientific whaling program and has, since 1993, acknowledged its whaling as explicitly commercial, albeit technically legal per its Article 5(3) objection

Japan and Norway’s moratorium evasions are not based on the capitalist greed that drives most environmental exploitation. Rather, both nations are motivated by political and cultural concerns. This is evident when looking at meat consumption. While whale meat is readily available in Japan, it is hardly a popular product. Annual personal consumption averages only 40 grams—an amount equivalent to just 0.005 percent of the average American’s pork intake. Furthermore, Japanese whaling only employs about 300 individuals and depends on government subsidies to remain economically viable. Similarly, despite government campaigns to popularize its consumption in Norway, data by anti-whaling organizations suggest that only 5 percent of Norwegians regularly eat whale meat. Nevertheless, both nations consider whaling a highly significant cultural activity with deep roots in their coastal economies and cuisine. Many nationalist politicians are unwilling to be perceived as surrendering their heritage in the face of unjust foreign intervention, therefore insisting on the continuation of one of the world’s most maligned industries. While it may not be profitable, it is politically advantageous to keep whale meat on supermarket shelves. 

Given that Japanese and Norwegian commercial whaling is driven by symbolic rather than economic desires, each nation sets and abides by relatively moderate quotas. Following its withdrawal from the IWC, Japan set limits of 171 common and Antarctic minke whales, 187 Bryde’s whales, and 25 sei whales for 2020 and 2021. Since 1982, Norway has harvested an average of 500 common minke whales annually, well below its current quota of 1,278. Furthermore, both nations primarily target the least endangered species. Norway exclusively hunts common minke whales—categorized as “least concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature—and Japan limits annual catches of sei whales—the only seriously endangered of the Japanese species—to a mere 25. 

In an ideal world, Japan and Norway would abide by the 1982 moratorium. Realistically, however, decades of evasion prove that the two nations lack motivation to comply, and the international community lacks the coercive tools to force adherence. Instead, refocusing the whaling debate from the environmental to the political sphere will address the danger to international norms posed by Japan and Norway’s evasions of the moratorium. As rising trends of nationalism and authoritarianism threaten the relevancy of international institutions, it is essential that liberal states such as Japan and Norway serve as models for global cooperation on environmental issues. Their noncompliance risks normalizing defection from agreements like the Paris Climate Accords, which require joint action from all states to mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change. Each nation’s adherence to their emissions target is essential to limiting global temperature rise, and any circumvention of international climate agreements threatens the surpassing of the ‘catastrophic’ warming threshold. 

The politics of climate change may, unexpectedly, provide a solution to the deadlock on commercial whaling. The history of international climate policy clearly demonstrates that effective agreements must be tailored to address the diverse circumstances of various nations. Convincing less industrialized nations to join aggressive climate agreements requires allotting them alternative emission targets. Additionally, support should be provided to recognize their histories of colonial economic neglect and urgent need for industrial development. Similarly, Japan and Norway’s unique cultural demands validate allowing some highly regulated whaling. This was the model of a 2007- 2010 diplomatic initiative that proposed repealing the moratorium in exchange for an end to the objection loophole and lower, but non-zero, whaling quotas for Japan and Norway. Hardliners on both sides, however, strongly opposed the proposal. Anti-whaling activists refused to accept legal recognition for any commercial whaling, while nationalist pro-whaling activists resisted perceived submission to international pressure. 

It may seem paradoxical, but the international response to Japanese and Norwegian moratorium evasion need not be tougher enforcement. Motivated by symbolic desires rather than profit, Japanese and Norwegian hunting remains environmentally benign in comparison to the dangerous precedent for international non-cooperation set by their defection from the IWC. Therefore, the international whaling regime must be restructured to realistically induce Japanese and Norwegian compliance. Much as the 2007-2010 diplomatic initiative suggested, these nations should be allowed low, principally symbolic quotas in return for their support in repealing the objection, withdrawal, and scientific exception loopholes. This plan is unlikely to harm whale populations and could even aid whale conservation by ending the Japanese harvests of endangered sei whales. A vigorous inspection regime will prevent evasion, while low demand for whale meat and high costs of entry will disincentivize other states from re-entering the whaling market. Renewed compliance would allow the IWC to set quotas slightly below Japan and Norway’s current self-imposed ones, and the nations’ histories of abiding by moderate self-imposed quotas would encourage adherence to reformed IWC oversight. The prohibitionist approach to commercial whaling has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to legalize whaling.