Japan faces potential trade sanctions after whaling operations deemed illegal

International body gives Japanese whalers a deadline of February to halt activities that break rules governing trade in endangered species

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 02 October 2018 16:02 BST
Illegal Japanese whaling filmed by the Australian Government in Antarctica

Japan’s “scientific” whaling in the North Pacific has been declared illegal by the international body tasked with stopping the global trade in endangered species.

The near-unanimous decision made by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) could result in trade sanctions unless Japanese whalers stop hunting vulnerable sei whales.

At their annual meeting in Sochi, Russia, the Cites committee concluded the thousands of tonnes of sei whale meat being landed were violating international law.

Though the meat is obtained under the pretext of hunting for scientific research, the vast majority ends up being eaten by Japanese consumers.

As many as 134 sei whales are killed every year in these operations. They are mainly hunted beyond Japan’s territorial waters. Cites rules state that bringing them into Japan counts as international trade – which is banned.

After reaffirming that their research activities were undertaken “with the aim of the preservation and management of the whales”, the Japanese delegation said they were “ready to formulate remedial actions”.

The committee agreed that Japan must take action by February next year for consideration at the next meeting in May.

If Cites does not accept Japan’s solution, which must bring an end to the landing of sei whale meat, it could recommend that the other 182 governments in the convention impose trade sanctions on Japan.

Conservation organisations welcomed the decision as upholding the integrity of Cites as an organisation willing to act to save wildlife.

“This is a significant win for sei whales and another blow by the international community against Japan’s so-called ‘scientific’ whaling,” said Matthew Collis, director of international policy for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).

“For 16 years Japan has been importing and selling sei whale products; this is a persistent and intentional violation of Cites rules and must stop.”

Astrid Fuchs, programme lead at Whale and Dolphin Conservation said the decision showed “that international conservation efforts can work”.

“Japan is now required to achieve permanent compliance with the treaty by stopping importing sei whale meat and blubber,” she said.

The decision comes after Japan’s bid at the International Whaling Commission in September to start a “sustainable whaling” programme lost by 42 votes to 27.

A decades-old ban on commercial whaling means it is currently only practised by Norway, Iceland and Japan – along with certain indigenous communities.

Japan has consistently pushed against this ban with its “scientific” programme. In 2014 the International Court of Justice ruled that its Antarctic whaling was not for research purposes.

Over 1,500 endangered sei whales have been killed by Japanese whalers over the past 16 years, and their meat has been brought into the country using Cites certificates despite its clear commercial purpose.

With its latest decision, experts are satisfied that this loophole has been closed.

“There was no question about Japan’s non-compliance. With this decision, the CITES Standing Committee put the integrity of the convention above politics,” said Professor Erica Lyman of the International Environmental Law Project at the Lewis and Clark Law School.

The Independent contacted the Japanese embassy in London for comment.

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