At incredible speed, the harpoon shoots through the air and roughly embeds itself in the thick blubber of a passing minke whale. Still alive and writhing in agony, the whale is dragged through the crimson stained water towards the Yushin Maru where it will soon be delivered to the “mothership” for scientific investigation and the meat distributed throughout Japan . This is Japan’s whaling programme JARPA II and at last it’s coming to an end.
On Monday 31st March 2014, it was announced that, with a vote of 12-4, the UN’s International Court of Justice had revoked Japan’s whaling licenses in the Antarctic ordering them to cease immediately. It was decided that Japan was openly flouting their international obligations by issuing whaling permits for minke, fin and humpback whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and that their scientific output, expected from a scientific programme like this, was limited. Whilst it’s technically illegal for nations to whale under the ‘commercial’ flag following the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 1986 moratorium, some still do either by simply rejecting the proposal or in the case of Japan, establishing a scientific research programme. This has allowed them to kill 3,600 minke whales since 2005 and with barely any results, this is a little suspicious to say the very least.
According to the guidelines of having a scientific permit, it is a requirement for the resulting meat to be used either by selling it or giving it away. Prior to the moratorium, Japan was at the forefront of commercial whaling with the meat considered to be something of a tradition and so it’s hard to believe that they would just cease when told to. However, by sailing under the research flag and trying to convince people that what they have been doing was benefiting the future of the whales, they have been able to continue consuming it without backlash from the IWC. Of course not everybody’s appetite for whale meat has been quashed by the decision; the demand has been in steep decline in recent years with stocks largely unsold and in storage. Perhaps with this in mind, the consumption is not necessarily the driving force at all yet the point still stands- where is the significant research? It’s easy to say that you need to kill whales in order to obtain certain results from life expectancy and toxin exposure to feeding habits and other cetacean characteristics but 10,000 whales later, where is the proof that their deaths have been worth it?
The whalers themselves are regularly seen holding up signs to campaigners stating that they are “weighing stomach contents” and “collecting tissue samples” yet in the age of DNA testing, there doesn’t seem to be a place for this method anymore. There is no need to murder whales for the collection of evidence like this- pioneering and harmless methods are being developed and of course there’s no substitute for sighting surveys in terms of tracking and monitoring patterns and behaviour. If scientists suddenly announced that they were going to start culling humans in order to gather information that could be obtained in more humane ways, people would not just allow it. There would be an uprising against them and so why is this not the case for the whales? Yes there are a lot of people who care strongly about the issue and are doing what they can to stop it but there are also a lot of people who remain indifferent. If more people get involved and take a stance, then perhaps there is a chance that pointless whaling will be completely eradicated once and for all.
The court’s decision has been welcomed by various environmental groups like Sea Shepherd, who have been actively campaigning against the Japanese whaling programme for years. Often seen confronting the whaling fleet in the Antarctic in a bid to stop them harvesting the whales in a designated sanctuary, Sea Shepherd has tirelessly fought against the programme and there is no doubt this news has been welcomed with open arms.
“Though Japan’s unrelenting harpoons have continued to drive many species of whales toward extinction, Sea Shepherd is hopeful that in the wake of the ICJ’s ruling, it is whaling that will be driven into the pages of the history books”
Captain Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd
Hopefully, this action will send a message to the whalers that this barbaric process will not be tolerated and will discourage them from continuing in the future. They have said that they are “disappointed” by the decision but that they will abide by the ruling but how long that will last is unknown. The passion of the whalers in terms of their defence is clear to see with their response to Sea Shepherd volunteers through the use of an LRAD system, designed to acoustically render people useless. A dangerous piece of equipment that has been even used on a helicopter, the system was used to defend the fleet from intervention and allow them to continue harpooning. This in itself shows the lengths they were willing to go to with out any regard to the lives of the volunteers and so this is perhaps a chance that they won’t accept this decision lying down even if the officials do. Of course what can be guaranteed is that should the whaling begin again, campaigners will be waiting for them.
With all this in mind, the question really is with the decision to stop Japan whaling under their JARPA II programme, will this stop whaling completely? The answer is no. This ban may prevent them hunting in the Antarctic but they are still able to hunt in the northern Pacific, albeit a smaller number of whales. Norway and Iceland also continue to whale on a commercial basis after rejecting the moratorium and this is something Japan could also do at some stage by pulling away from the IWC completely and severing all restrictions and ties. There are also some loopholes that would allow them to continue their scientific whaling if the programme is redesigned but hopefully it won’t come to that and the whales in the sanctuary can avoid that unimaginable pain.
Whaling isn’t just the only issue that faces cetaceans on a daily basis; the low frequencies emitted by ships can cause acoustic masking with not only disorientates the whales but can also mean that they are unable to feed and communicate with each other. There’s no doubt that initially the noise would scare them away but repeated exposure could mean that they think of it more as an annoyance and don’t move away from it. The shipping noise caused by the whaling fleet and, ironically, the campaigners may contribute to the acoustical acceptance; they hear it so often that the don’t move away and are then caught. Of course it’s important to take into consideration that some discomfort is better than brutal murder and so the Sea Shepherd invasive action seems to outweigh this particular con but it’s also important to consider other issues.
Ocean pollution, climate change and accidental by catch are all thing that pose a huge risk to whales and so if these problems are not tackled successfully as well, whales are still going to die a preventable death. The decision to end the JARPA II programme is no doubt a huge step in the protection of cetaceans and a sign that the reception of whaling is changing but with a world where wildlife is constantly under threat, it’s vital that such action is continued.