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Japan and the 'will they, won't they show?'

Recent press reports appeared at first glance to indicate that Japan was considering suspending it Antarctic whaling operations.

The initial euphoria felt by many members of the public proved ill founded when it was revealed that Japan was simply preparing to refurbish its factory whaling ship, the Nissan Maru. The Japanese government has now indicated that this refurbishment will lead to at least another 10 years more whaling.

It would appear that Japan has spent around ¥900 million (approximately €5.7 million) annually since 1988 on subsidizing waiting, so in many ways it should come as no surprise that Japan’s whaling interests have their eyes on the long term goal of a fully sanctioned resumption of commercial whaling.

Japanese whaling interests’ hopes lie either in a compromise deal at the International Whaling Commission (IWC), or a break away by the Japanese government to form a new whaling commission with only pro-whaling interests allowed to participate. Japan regularly threatens to walk out of the IWC but it appears that international presige and its position in the international community acts as a break on such a reckless act.

However, the risk of a compromise is never far away. There have been three attempts at reaching a so-called compromise deal within the IWC since 1997. The first attempt was initiated when the then Irish commissioner, Mr Michael Canney, sought to ‘break the stalemate’ in 1997. In what was to become known as the ‘Irish proposal’ and with oft repeated rhetoric that the ‘IWC was about to break up’, some commissioners at the IWC sought to push through a new form of commercial whaling known as coastal whaling. This would have restricted Japan’s so-called ‘scientific whaling, but would have overturned the moratorium on commercial whaling once-and-for-all.

Again in 2004 Henrik Fisher, the then chair of the IWC, attempted to seek a similar compromise. A concerted effort, supported by the US Government, was taken forward by Bill Hogarth, chair of the IWC between 2005 and 2009, but again, floundered in 2010.

All these proposals failed both because they would have led to the resumption of commercial whaling, and also, because the whalers felt that their continued pressure at the IWC would actually deliver them everything they wanted without having to compromise.

Indeed, the very regularity of the repeated attempts to promote a compromise has become a source of encouragement to the commercial whaling interests. The IWC is populated with new Commissioners every few years, many of whom have no memory of the recent past, and some of whom rush to ‘solve’ what they see as a problem only they can ‘manage’. Each attempt has led to more compromises being proposed from the conservation-led side. The last proposal even considered allowing the hunting of fin and sei whales as well as minke whales. It would have also allowed whaling for at least 10 years before review.

So no wonder that the pro-whaling industrial complex feels that all it needs to do is keep banging away at the IWC, eroding its foundations and seeking to compromise its ability to carry out any conservation action.

The pro-whalers have also sought to encourage aboriginal subsistence waiting to engage in more commercial activities. The most enthusiastic of the ASW hunters have been those in Greenland. Their strategy has been to blur the divisions between ASW and commercial whaling, so making it easier to Japan and her allies to complain that ‘their whaling is no different to that sanctioned already by the IWC’.

It is remarkable is that this all comes at the same time the consumption of whalemeat in Japan and the other countries has continued to rapidly diminish.

The Japanese Dolphin and Whale Action Network (IKAN) has carried out research which shows that Japanese people eat on average only 23.7 g a year of whalemeat, about the same weight as a chocolate bar.

But, despite these facts, the pro-whaling interests still have a tight grip on the decision-making process within Japan, Norway and Iceland.

Japan and her allies appear to be in for the long-haul in this debate. Pro-conservation countries need to also look to the long-game and not seek to falter by pursuing any compromise deal that will simply bring sucour to the pro-whaling interests and encourage them even more. Now is the time to hold fast, to protect the remaining whales, and seek a better future for all us, human and whale-kind alike.