TOKYO – Japan announced Wednesday it is withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission and will resume commercial whale hunting next year, sparking swift condemnation from conservation groups.

Tokyo argues that the IWC has failed to live up to its initial dual mandate in 1946, to find a balance between preserving whale stocks and allowing the “orderly development” of the whaling industry. After failing to get agreement at a global conference in Brazil in September to resume commercial whaling, Japan is now following through on a threat to withdraw from the global body entirely.

The withdrawal will take effect at the end of June, with commercial whaling to resume in July “in line with Japan’s basic policy of promoting sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a statement.

“The whaling will be conducted in accordance with international law and within the catch limits calculated in accordance with the method adopted by the IWC to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources.”

But conservation groups were swift to condemn the decision.

“By leaving the International Whaling Commission but continuing to kill whales commercially, Japan now becomes a pirate whaling nation killing these ocean leviathans completely outside the bounds of international law,” said Kitty Block, president of Humane Society International.

“For decades Japan has aggressively pursued a well-funded whaling campaign to upend the global ban on commercial whaling,” she added in a statement. “It has consistently failed but instead of accepting that most nations no longer want to hunt whales, it has now simply walked out.”

Humane Society International said it was also concerned that Japan may recruit other pro-whaling nations to leave the IWC, “leading to a new chapter of renegade slaughter of whales for profit.”

Faced with collapsing whale stocks, the IWC agreed to a moratorium on commercial whaling from 1986, a move credited with saving several species from imminent extinction.

But Japan, Iceland and Norway have continued to hunt whales. Japan has until now justified its annual Antarctic whale hunt in the name of scientific research, which it says is necessary to evaluate global populations of whale species.

That argument was rejected by the International Court of Justice in 2014, when it ruled that Japan’s Antarctic hunt had no scientific basis. Japan stopped for a year, then resumed with a new “research program” that it claimed met the court’s concerns.

In a recent report, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the Animal Welfare Institute said Japan, Norway and Iceland had killed 38,539 whales since the moratorium took effect, with more than 22,000 killed by Japanese boats alone.

Wildlife groups say Japan’s “research” whaling was a thinly veiled attempt to keep the industry alive, making sure boats, skills and a market for whale meat are maintained. 

Now, though, the veil has been removed. Suga said Japan will cease taking whales from the Antarctic Ocean and Southern Hemisphere, and will conduct commercial whaling “within Japan’s territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone.”

The cabinet secretary said the views of countries wanting to continue whaling in a sustainable manner “were not taken into account at all” during deliberations in Florianópolis, Brazil in September, leading Japan to conclude that the coexistence of states with different views was not possible within the IWC.

“Consequently, Japan has been led to make this decision,” he said.

In September, Japan asked permission to hunt Antarctic minke whales, common minke whales, Bryde’s whales and Sei whales, with officials citing IWC population estimates in the tens of thousands for three of the species and of more than 500,000 for the Antarctic minke.

But conservationists argue that whale stocks have not recovered sufficiently from past overhunting and are anyway hard to judge, easy to destroy and slow to rebuild. Marine mammals also face mounting existential threats from climate change and marine pollution, including plastics, chemical and noise. 

There is also a widespread revulsion in the West to the idea of hunting and killing whales, although some proponents of whale hunting point to the cruelty involved in Western factory farming to level accusations of hypocrisy.

Whale meat was a vital source of protein in Japan as it recovered from the ravages of World War II, but is much less popular these days. But the government argues it is part of Japan’s traditional culture, dating back centuries.

“Engagement in whaling has been supporting local communities, and thereby developed the life and culture of using whales,” Suga said. “Japan hopes that more countries will share the same position to promote sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence, which will thereby be handed down to future generations.

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