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Bottlenose dolphins © Christopher Swann

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When is a whaling ban not a whaling ban?

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) biennial meeting is never a simple place to negotiate your way through. I had the privilege of attending several meetings during my WDC career, and the team we are sending this year will be some of our best brains. 

And this year we need the team to be on top form, as Japan seems to be playing a new game within the IWC.

Every year, for the last thirty years, ever since the moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted, Japan has done its utmost to overturn that precautionary decision.

This is the same moratorium that has saved tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of whales’ lives since it was enacted in 1985/86. This is the same moratorium that has been a political thorn in the side of the Japanese Government ever since; a reminder of its previous relationship with the USA, who persuaded Japan to withdraw any formal objection to the decision, and to its perceived ineptitude in failing to persuade the IWC to change its stance, despite years of argument and attempts to load the IWC with its own supporters.

But if Japan has not been successful in thirty years, why is it still trying to refloat and industry that long since died and only makes it an international pariah?

Many years ago, I was sat outside an IWC meeting having a coffee. It was around two am and I was talking with some colleagues, chatting through the previous day and going over what the following morning would bring. As we talked a Japanese delegate was jogging and he stopped to speak to us. I think he had had enough of his run and just wanted to rest, but he also welcomed a cup of tea and began chatting as if we were other delegates and not opposition combatants who were simply resting before re-engaging our pugilism the next day.

In his relaxed state, he revealed that Japan was looking to the long game with regard whaling. He made it clear that Japan was not constrained by the budgets of the conservation countries or the limited resources of the NGOs, but that there was an almost bottomless pit when it came to access to monies to fight this whaling crusade as they saw it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I had met this individual in Japan several years before when I first started working for WDC. In those distant discussions he, in a less guarded moment, had told me that he, personally, felt that Japanese whaling was an unnecessary waste of time, but that, for domestic political reasons, Japan would continue to fight to prevent any species of wildlife being deemed ‘beyond use’. It’s not an argument constrained to our brief one-on-one discussions with a Japanese delegate as Chris Hogg reported for the BBC in 2008 noted, and was recently reiterated in February 2016, by the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes.

Indeed, I have written extensively on what drives Japanese policy and have recently published on this very subject in Frontiers of Marine Science.

“…not because Japan was right, but because Japan could spend its way to victory”

But here in the cold early morning, several years later, sat in café in a European coastal city, this same Japanese delegate was reiterating why he felt Japan would win, – not because Japan was right, but because Japan could spend its way to victory and could fundamentally ‘out wait’ the conservation countries. 

And so it is that almost every year that the IWC meets, Japan again attempts to overturn the moratorium and secure a coastal quota of whales for its fleet; and every year it is rebuffed.

But this year Japan is attempting something new. This year it is arguing that it can have the IWC allocate it a quota without violating the text of the moratorium.

Dancing on a pinhead of arguments, Japan is proposing that the original Schedule Amendment that established the moratorium on commercial whaling, will allow, whilst being unaltered itself, for the setting of potential future catch limits for commercial whaling subject to some ‘very strict criteria’.

You can read about these arguments here in more detail, but I am raising this issue here because of the lengths that Japan will go to deliver what a small group of old men in Tokyo want to achieve for a perverted sense of selfish twisted national pride.

So, when you are thinking about supporting WDC and wondering if all these IWC meetings are worth it, please remember that it’s all about the long game – because that’s what we are up against in terms of Japan, Norway and Iceland’s strategies.

If we were not able to send our very best, Japan would have long ago realised its ambitions. So thank you for your ongoing support of WDC and we shall endeavour to fight for the whales, whatever tricks Japan tries to pull.

 The full briefing on Japan’s attempts to overturn the moratorium at the 2016 IWC are contained in the briefing Why Japan is wrong about the moratorium‘. Please have a read if you want to understand more abot what they are trying to do this year.