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Whaling in the time of covid-19

Mark Simmonds, Senior Marine Scientist at Humane Society International, discusses the worrying news that whilst the world is distracted by covid-19, whaling continues around the world, including in countries still party to the International Whaling Commission. Where does this leave the moratorium and the future of the International Whaling Commission?

July 2020

Of all the activities that have been permitted to continue during the pandemic, it is perhaps surprising that commercial whaling has been going on in both Norway and Japan. These two countries set their own quotas with no international approval. Norway made a formal reservation to the global moratorium on commercial whaling agreed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1982 and so is not bound by it. Japan, since leaving the IWC one year ago on July 1st 2019, now classifies its hunts as commercial, rather than claiming they are ‘scientific’, as it did for many years.

Japan’s whaling season has, however, been marred by a crash in whale meat prices, which are reported to have fallen by more than half. Covid-19 is being blamed, having forced people out of restaurants where they might previously have indulged in this luxury product. Notably, too, there was a non-lethal food poisoning event in June affecting 34 people in Ishinomaki city, Hokkaido, and Fukuoka Prefecture, all of whom had eaten minke whale meat. Publicity about this event will likely play poorly for the industry in a country with high standards of food hygiene.

Japan’s whaling industry is also being firmly encouraged to become financially independent after many years of substantial government subsidies. A recent article quotes a Japanese Ministry of Fisheries official as saying “[Whaling] cannot receive special treatment indefinitely,” pointing out that despite the 5.1 billion yen [over 47 million US$] of taxpayer funds that went towards whaling subsidies in 2020, this cannot continue year after year. This is a difficult challenge for an industry with a long history of dependence on government support. The only immediate reaction has been an expression of desire to kill more of the biggest whales as this would be more cost-effective for whalers. What this would mean in terms of which species might be taken, and where, is a key question that remains to be answered. Japan has previously stated it will whale exclusively within its Economic Exclusion Zone, but the temptation will certainly be to go further out to sea to find larger animals.

However, the most significant whaling-related development of this northern summer was perhaps in South Korea, not usually even thought of as a whaling nation. On the 8th June, 34 km southeast of Ulsan city and within South Korean waters, a marine police aircraft spotted a large whale being pulled up to a ship, and observed two other ships also harpooning and capturing whales. By the time the police were able to physically inspect the vessels, all traces of whale meat and whaling equipment had been removed, but they had successfully filmed the activity and collected samples for DNA analysis. Two minke whale bodies were later recovered and described as being in ‘terrible condition’, each with 5-6 ‘cold’ (non-explosive) harpoons stuck in them. The harpoons had been used to target and secure the animals who then died from wounding and blood-loss, a prolonged and painful process.

Whilst whaling is currently illegal in South Korea, itself a member of the IWC, and there are significant associated penalties (imprisonment of up to 3 years or a fine of not more than 30 million won), the rewards are also high. A fresh minke whale is reported to be worth 100 million won (83,000 US dollars) and whale meat from bycaught or stranded animals can be legally sold, once the bodies have been appropriately registered with the police who confirm they have been legally obtained.

If it transpires that these were South Korean whaling vessels, this exacerbates the nagging concern that this could become a new nationally sanctioned hunt. With its neighbour, Japan, whaling without sanctions outside of the IWC, which maintains its global moratorium on commercial whaling, might South Korea and maybe other nations ponder whether remaining within the IWC is still in their best interests? Or will they too quit and take advantage of unopposed commercial whaling?

World attention is understandably focused on other issues right now, but it does seem to be that under these conditions those interested in making cruel profits from whales are quietly promoting their interests with only a vague echo of any appropriate international condemnation. The repercussions of this could be profound.

Mark Simmonds, Senior Marine Scientist for Humane Society International and Chair of the Link Whales Working Group

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.