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Whaling and dolphin hunts in Japan – it’s all money and politics

I have been busy representing WDC in a number of press interviews on the launch of the annual dolphin hunts in Taiji, Japan and the renewed whaling effort under the Japanese government’s self-allocated whaling quotas.

This is the first year Japanese whalers have been hunting outside of the jurisdiction of the International Whaling Commission (IWC, the body that regulates whaling) and the government has been attempting to spin the media to present itself as the victim of international discrimination rather than the whaling pariah that it is. They have sought to portray this whaling as what’s known as ‘small-type whaling’, involving diminutive vessels and local fishers. What it does not seek the cameras to see is the fact that the whalers are also still using the large factory ship and hunter-killer vessels to take whales far out to sea. It seems those that hoped that the Japanese government’s withdrawal from the IWC would see the quick ending of its whaling may not have accounted for the deep-rooted nationalism that a few influential individuals have in Japan when it comes to this issue.

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Spurned on by the nationalistic agenda of Prime Minister Abe and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) General Secretary, Toshihiro Nikai, the Japanese government has sought to make whaling a totemic item in defining Japan in these strange political times. After years of trying to ‘spend its way’ to garner support for its whaling inside the IWC, the powers that be in Japan decided that the global political climate had created a window though which it could leave the IWC and pacify the small but effective pro-whaling lobby within Japan.

The Japanese taxpayer is expected to spend 5.1 billion yen, or approximately £40 million on commercial whaling activities in the coming year, with up to £4 million being used to continue to influence other countries to support these activities. We now know that, despite the hopes of some conservationists, the Japanese government is pressing ahead with the construction of a new factory ship for 2024 and will be spending ‘…2.4 billion yen for exploration and development expenses’ – demonstrating that they are still committed to expanding their whaling and will be maintaining their capacity to re-engage with whaling outside their own waters as soon as they can.

We also now know that whalers have been continuing to sell sei whale meat caught in contravention of the Convention In Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, the body that regulates wildlife trade) regulations. The nations of the world regard ‘importation from the sea’ in a similar way as importation from another country and in the case of anyone else, for example ivory, the state concerned would be expected to destroy the stockpiles. In Japan’s case the government has allowed the whale meat to enter the commercial food chain and people are still making money from this illegal activity that the government used taxpayers’ money to obtain in the first place. It seems it’s one rule for the government of Japan and another for other countries.

The impact of the decisions to leave and abuse the international rules-based order is having broader repercussions for conservation. Zimbabwe’s government has announced that it is considering withdrawing from CITES after unsuccessfully calling for a lifting of the ban on the trade in ivory. It was quick to blame ‘western countries’ for the decision, just like Japan’s authorities are keen to do over whaling, but when it comes to ivory, much of the argument to keep the ban comes from other African nations – a fact that it is easy to ignore when affording blame for the failure of its delegates to be persuasive at the CITES meeting.

Advocates for Zimbabwe leaving CITES point to the actions of Japan in leaving the IWC as a precedent stating ‘…There’s no doubt there are countries who will be willing to trade in ivory outside Cites…’

The Japanese government’s withdrawal of Japan from the jurisdiction of the international Court of Justice (ICJ) with respect to marine species and its withdrawal from the IWC, has given credence to the undermining of the norms of international governance and international law, encouraging countries to see international law as simply something to use when it suits them, but something to dispose of when unable to persuade others of their demands.

This arrogance was further seen in the fact that the Japanese government has recently increased by 37 the quota for Bryde’s whales, having reached its original self-allocated quota of 150 whales. Added to the 52 minke whales and the 25 endangered sei whales that Japanese whalers are hunting, this brings the total kill-quota to 264 whales.

This comes at a time when our ignorance of whales is being reinforced by the fact that we are discovering new species all the time. Even the beaked whales hunted off the coast of Japan are being sub-divided as new differences are discovered in what was thought to be a single species. This makes a mockery of the quotas that Japan’s leaders have issued which are based on a simplistic understanding of the whale populations around its coast.

Such recklessness makes one wonder if these quotas are based on science or political expediency?

A journalist, through a question, made reference to the potential equivalence of Japan’s management of whales and the UK’s management of fish stocks? My answer was to suggest we look to how Japan’s Fisheries Ministry has managed the hunting of dolphins and small whales which it argues fall outside of the competency of the IWC.

I would encourage you to read the WDC report, Small Cetaceans, Big Problems where we have investigated the killing of dolphins and small whales around the world.

We note that it was only in 1993 that Japan started setting annual catch-limits for these hunts, when it was killing some 46,000 dolphins and small whales annually.

According to Japan’s annual progress reports a total of 173,662 dolphins and small whales were killed in the period 2000–2016. However, official hunting records do not include those that were what’s known as ‘struck and lost’ – they sustained an injury but escaped - nor do they consider the impact that drive hunts (which also capture live individuals for the aquarium industry) may have on the viability of a family group and pod. Furthermore, the government is now authorising the killing of an expanded number of species. In 2017, for example, it established a new quota for Taiji allowing rough-toothed dolphins and melon-headed whales to be hunted.

The number of Dall’s porpoises caught in the Japanese hand harpoon hunt has declined by 95% between 1988 and 2011 simply because Dall’s porpoises were disappearing under an unsustainable hunt. Japanese researchers noted in 2017 that ‘…the current catch of Dall's porpoises by the Japanese harpoon fishery is still over 10% of the total number of Dall's porpoises known to migrate annually to the fishing grounds…and that there is a great risk of further depletion of one or more stocks of the species by the fishery.’

The hunts like the one at Taiji do generate polluted dolphin meat, but some 70% of the revenue for the hunters now comes from sales to the captivity industry. Live bottlenose dolphins are reported to be bringing in up to $150,000. An initiative of the Member of Parliament for Taiji, and member of Nippon Kaigi alongside Prime Minsiter Abe, Toshihiro Nikai, recently helped secure a five-year-deal with Chinese dolphinaria that will see Taiji receive up to $15million for live captures.

Ominously the same report suggests that Taiji is linking itself with the Faroe Islands, unifying the Danish protectorate and Japan as the countries with the two most notorious remaining hunts of small whales and dolphins.

As the Taiji dolphin hunts decline because the fishers have been wiping out populations of dolphins it seems that the entertainment industry is now the primary driver of these hunts.

So if anyone tells you captive dolphin facilities are about conservation, point them in the direction of Taiji and ask why such hunts are continuing?

Ask them also whether the death of thousands of dolphins and whales is an acceptable price for their amusement?

Point them also to the BBC report of the recent whale hunts in Japan; the reporter interviews a young Japanese child who is taken to watch the butchering of a whale, but when asked whether they will eat whale again, says ‘no, I don’t really want to’.

 It seems the Japanese government of old men, with archaic links to an industry that should have died out many years ago if they had left it to market forces, are out of touch with the new generation of Japanese youth who can see whaling for what it is – a barbaric, antiquated, and internationally damaging pursuit that brings the country they love nothing but condemnation.

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