Shimonoseki, Japan – As delegates from 45 member nations gathered here in May for the 54th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), grim portents were in the air. In Tokyo, a crowd estimated at 600 people had marched through the government district, waving banners and shouting “We’ll eat whale!” In Shimonoseki, a port city of some 250,000 nestled amid low hills nearly 500 miles southwest of Tokyo, there had been festivals offering free fried whale meat. To the thundering of traditional drums, vendors sold T-shirts bearing cartoons of bloated, burping whales -as the supposed culprits in depleting the oceans of fish. Japan’s fourth hosting of an IWC meeting was taking place in its “whaling capital,” the place where the fleet traditionally set out for the Antarctic and North Pacific.

Now, the day before the opening, a caravan of 160 vehicles descended on Shimonoseki. Many bore the World War II symbol of the rising sun emblazoned on their sides. They resembled battle wagons more than anything else. They had assembled from all over Japan, busloads of men in matching blue and green uniforms, with loudspeakers blaring fervent and near-deafening messages. They shouted anti-American slogans and calls to resume commercial whaling of the kujira. As the sinister cavalcade passed in a six-kilometer-long cavalcade through downtown, citizens gathered on bridges to watch. The street adjoining the conference center was cordoned off by dozens of police.

Who were the demonstrators? “Since the Cold War ended, the rightists in Japan are seeking an agenda,” explained Tokyo TV journalist Teddy Jimbo. “The whale issue is both emotional and nationalistic, Japan versus the West.”

Japan had been preparing for this year’s IWC meeting for months, making no secret of its intentions to try to overturn a ban on commercial whaling worldwide that has been in place since 1987. The IWC was established through a multilateral treaty after World War II to manage rampant “harvesting” that had driven many whale species to near-extinction. For its first several decades, the commission proved ineffectual in curtailing the catches (in 1961 came the largest annual taking of whales ever recorded, with over 66,000 slaughtered worldwide). In 1972 the UN’s Stockholm Environment Conference called for a ten-year worldwide commercial whaling moratorium and, with the advent of Greenpeace and other environmental groups calling further attention to the whales’ plight, in 1982 a three-quarters majority of the IWC voted that “catch limits for commercial purposes…shall be zero.” However, once the moratorium took effect, Japan and Norway continued to hunt, using a regulatory loophole allowing nations to issue themselves special permits, to continue killing whales for “scientific research.” The IWC had passed 19 resolutions urging the Japanese government not to issue such permits, but the requests have been ignored. Norway self-allocates a quota of 674 minke whales in the North Atlantic, but now says it can’t afford to store all the boxes of packed meat and has announced an export agreement with Japan.

Japan’s hunting of more than 5,000 minke whales in the fourteen years since the moratorium has mostly occurred in the Southern Ocean, despite that area’s designation in 1994 as a whale sanctuary. In the North Pacific, Japan not only pursued minke whales but expanded its hunt to start taking Bryde’s whales, sperm whales, and most recently sei whales (listed as an endangered species by the World Conservation Union). Japan, while arguing that its hunts are to study whale migration patterns, population trends and diet, has ended up selling much of the meat to markets and restaurants. Also allowed to be sold in Japan are one hundred-some minke whales that get trapped each year in coastal fishing nets. American threats of potential economic sanctions against Japan have proved ineffective. So had a recent and unprecedented diplomatic complaint signed by 18 nations, delivered to the Foreign Ministry and demanding Japan abandon its expanded hunts. It still seemed unlikely that Japan could muster the three-quarters majority vote needed to overturn the moratorium. But the concern of conservation-minded nations was how close they might come to that goal, notwithstanding that seven of the 13 great whale species remain endangered or vulnerable.

In fact, what was about to transpire in Shimonoseki was a high-stakes chess game with the whales as pawns. This would prove to be the most dramatic and divisive meeting in the IWC’s history, undermining the organization to such an extent that its very survival as a viable entity seems at stake. Which is precisely what Japan and its allies were hoping for. With perhaps a thousand participants, non-governmental organizations, and media looking on, Japan’s Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries rose to give the welcoming statement. His image projected on a large screen, Tsutomo Takebe offered the litany being used by Japan to justify its expanded “research” whaling – collecting data on the interaction between whales and fish. Japanese scientists claim that cetaceans consume between 300 million and 500 million tons of marine resources annually, three to five times the amount of fish eaten by humans. And they further maintain that the whales have made such a comeback that they’re out-competing humans for a dwindling amount of fish, and therefore need to be “culled.” (Worst of all, Japan recently stated, whales are threatening the sushi supply by devouring the fatty tuna’s important krill resource). But, as U.S. Commissioner Rolland Schmitten pointed out, “There is no scientific evidence to show that whales are causing a decline in fish stocks in our oceans.” Most of the large whale species eat plankton and krill, other predatory fishes consume vastly greater amounts of commercially valuable fish than marine mammals, and tropical tuna fisheries don’t occur where whales are feeding. The real problem is overcapacity of the global fishing fleet and human greed – including Japan’s own huge fishing industry.

The first ploy Japan made to try to extend its control was pushing for Iceland’s bid to rejoin the IWC as a voting member. A former whaling nation, Iceland quit the organization in 1991 because it opposed the moratorium. Now, if Iceland returned, the pro-whaling forces would have another country in their voting bloc. Although Iceland’s attempt fell five votes shy, the fact that Japan’s camp included a number of small island nations – whose votes they’ve been accused of buying – became abundantly clear.

Outside the conference center, members of Greenpeace had dressed themselves up as Masayuki Komatsu, a senior official of the Fisheries Agency of Japan. They depicted him tempting developing nations with gold in exchange for their votes. Japan touted itself as the world’s largest donor, providing foreign aid to about 150 countries. In an IWC press release, the Fisheries Agency sought to show that those aid recipients included several countries that oppose Japan’s position on whaling. This is true, but also misleading, because only a handful of those countries receive the direct fisheries aid grants that Japan has been giving to countries now voting with it at the IWC. Japanese IWC Commissioner Minouri Morimoto conceded that Japan had proferred some 400 million pounds of such moneys to eight developing nations over the past decade. Six of the recipients in 2001 – Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Solomon Islands – were all active supporters of Japan at the IWC. Now another Pacific island nation (Palau), and the small West African countries of Benin and Gabon had joined the organization. So had Mongolia. All seemed to vote whichever way Japan wanted. The Caribbean spokesmen were particularly loquacious, prompting one observer to speculate that they are “paid by the word.”

Still, Japan’s hopes for tipping the balance weren’t going too well in the first days of the convention. While Iceland staged a theatrical walk-out on the proceedings, Japan was defeated in its ongoing effort toward requiring secret ballots and, most significantly, lost in another attempt to secure approval for four of its coastal communities to take 50 minke whales a year. Every year Japan tried to land this commercial quota, a first step in undermining the moratorium, and every year failed to garner the required three-quarters majority of the IWC. But this year, Japan had something else up its sleeve. The fact was, as Komatsu openly admitted, these four communities planned to kill and sell those fifty minke whales no matter what the IWC said – as part of Japan’s scientific whaling program. When asked what would really satisfy Japan, Komatsu flatly stated they were ultimately looking to take “thousands and thousands.” A minke whale, whose meat is an expensive delicacy in Japan on a par with the finest tuna, will sell for the yen equivalent of between $30,000 and $40,00 depending on its freshness.

If one follows the money to the top, the chain begins in Tokyo at the Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR), which is provided a $73 million annual subsidy by the Fisheries Agency. The ICR oversees a 200-employee whaling fleet owned by the Kyodo Senpaku conglomerate, which makes annual hunts to the Antarctic and North Pacific. Meanwhile, the Fisheries Agency oversees the slaughter each year of 22,000 small dolphins and whales – which are outside the IWC’s purview – in unregulated, often brutal near-shore hunts where the animals are herded onto the beach and killed. Japan continues to set an annual quota of 725 striped dolphins, a highly endangered species. The ICR recoups about half of its subsidy by selling whale meat around Japan..

The label of “whale,” however, is often a misnomer. Japanese government surveys in 1999 and 2000 found that just over half of such products were minke whale, while the remaining samples consisted of meat from dolphins, porpoises, or pilot whales.

Japan is also a particularly heavy consumer of agricultural chemicals, and the global leader in production of dioxins. In March 2001, after the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency purchased cetacean products in Japan, all seventeen samples analyzed were found to exceed the Japanese government’s provisional permitted levels for mercury. Many of these same samples also contained high levels of PCBs, and pesticides including DDT and dieldrin. Fears about such contamination may have been a factor last year, when thirty percent of the minke whale products in Japan went unpurchased – the first year that wholesale markets did not sell out. The fact is, most younger Japanese today much prefer burgers and fries to the whale products which in 1960 constituted more than one-quarter of all meat consumed in the country. Despite a Japanese government poll issued last December indicating that over 87 percent of respondents had eaten whale meat, a later survey by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun found only four percent saying they sometimes eat whale, 53 percent did “a long time ago,” and 33 percent never had.

What then is behind the fervent push to revive commercial whaling? As Richard Mott of the World Wildlife Fund put it, “Whaling is a vestigial economic enterprise, heavily subsidized, a very odd industry to be getting this kind of protection and a level of government fealty that would be the envy of any Fortune 500 company. But power in Japan is so decentralized. The Fisheries Agency is a fiefdom. There is no engaged citizenry or Prime Minister, but rather a political system that can be commandeered by special economic interests.”

In the case of this year’s IWC meeting, the commandeering was done by a highly ambitious Fisheries official named Masayuki Komatsu. Ever since the IWC began, whaling quotas had been set aside to meet the subsistence needs of aboriginal peoples, primarily the Eskimos of northern Alaska and of Russia’s impoverished Chukotka peninsula. These quotas come up for review within five years and have been customarily adopted by consensus, without being put to a vote that would require a three-quarters majority. In 2002, with the bowhead whale population continuing to grow at a rate of over three percent a year, delegates were being asked to grant the same quota of 61 bowheads a year to the Alaskan and Russian natives.

Then Japan and its allies raised the “double standard” flag, in retaliation for the IWC’s rejection of its coastal whaler’s commercial quota.. Didn’t the Japanese “small coastal villages” have the same needs as these other aboriginal people? In fact, there was no legitimate comparison. Japan’s villagers were already making considerable sums from selling minke whale and other products – without the IWC’s imprimatur – and scarcely facing starvation as the Chukotkans could over the course of an Arctic winter. But, as Mexico’s commissioner Andres Rozental pointed out, “The IWC opened this Pandora’s box in 1997, by bunching the Russian’s customary aboriginal quota for gray whales in with a request from U.S. Makah Tribe to resume whaling.”

What had happened was this: the Makah, a Native American tribe in northwestern Washington, had expressed desire to start whaling again after a seventy-year hiatus, citing a treaty signed in 1855 with the U.S. government..

The Makah asserted a “cultural need” under the IWC’s aboriginal subsistence clause. The U.S., perhaps fearful of a court challenge over the treaty right claim, backed the Makah’s request to the IWC. No real need was sanctioned, but the Makah were allotted a subsistence (no sale permitted) quota of no more than twenty gray whales over the ensuing five-year period. In 1999, the tribe harpooned and shot their first (and, so far, only) whale in waters near their reservation. Little was said publicly about a memorandum of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service from 1995, which noted the Makah had “started discussions with Japan and Norway about selling their whale products to both countries.” Behind the scenes, Japan had been very much involved with prodding the Makah to go forward, clearly with the notion in mind to undermine the United States’s strong position against commercial whaling and use this situation to its advantage in the future.

“That’s where the market haggling started,” according to Rozental. “The minute you open new categories of exceptions to the moratorium, others will try to do it.” Starting, of course, with Japan, which now seized upon the Makah precedent to try to force the IWC’s hand on its own coastal whalers. Not that Komatsu, who pressed the issue, figured he could really succeed in this. But he knew that a single nation could stand in the way of consensus on the aboriginal bowhead quota and, if he could bring the issue to a vote, with his allies he’d likely be able to stalemate the matter short of the required three-quarters majority.

Once Komatsu voiced his opposition to consensus for a second time, the IWC recessed for the first of what would be several rounds of private negotiating sessions among the commissioners. Was this Japan’s “payback” for losing the vote on its coastal whalers? the UK’s assistant commissioner Elliot Morley was asked. “This goes beyond payback,” Morley fumed. “This appears to be a deliberate attempt to wreck the IWC.” Calling this the organization’s “worst crisis in many years,” Morley explained that if Japan succeeded in blocking the bowhead quota, the Russian Federation might have no other choice but to give one to the Chukotkan natives anyway – further undermining the IWC’s credibility.

Meantime, outside the convention hall, Komatsu was mobbed by the Japanese media, as if he was a rock star. His tough stance was gaining him something of a hero’s status, especially among Japanese nationalists. Rumor had it he would soon leave the Fisheries Agency and run for political office. The Caribbean countries stood staunchly with Japan, allegedly because they wanted to bargain for a higher aboriginal quota on humpback whales for one of their own (St. Vincent/Grenadines). That piece of “horse trading,” as Rozental described it, was hammered out behind closed doors, to give the island nation its requested twenty whales over the next five years – despite St. Vincent’s having flouted IWC standards in the past by killing female whales with calves.

Yet each time the commissioners reconvened, thinking they could now achieve consensus, Japan’s Komatsu stood in their way. “Our hostage” – meaning the minke whale – “is dead, theirs [the bowhead whale] is still alive,” he told the press. He tried “reviving” his whale, by offering a “compromise” proposal whereby Japan’s coastal villages would take only 25 minke whales annually, rather than 50. But the numbers were not the issue, the IWC’s sanctioning of commercial whaling was. Twice Komatsu pushed the bowhead quota to a vote. Even Norway, and eventually St. Vincent, chose to vote for it. The second time, the aboriginal quota measure failed by a single vote, with 11 nations opposed and two abstaining (China and Panama).

Despite reported diplomatic maneuvering at levels much higher than the IWC, Japan’s Fisheries Agency would not be moved. However, when it came to the joint Russia-U.S. subsistence quota for gray whales – notably including the Makah Tribe’s renewed allotment – Komatsu raised no objection. The measure was quickly adopted by consensus.

Inside the hall, bitterness and resentment prevailed over the bowhead quota outcome. “What honor is left in this organization?” wondered the UK delegate, “disgusted” with the “cant and hypocrisy.” It was, several nations commented, “a black day for the IWC.” The Russian Federation added, “Today, we have seen a political game. But we are not playing.” For their part, the Caribbean countries aligned with Japan defended themselves and claimed to have been “bombarded by calls putting pressure on us.” As Dominica’s commissioner summarized, “Our motto is, ‘All shall eat.’ But Japan must get their quota also.”

At a press conference, U.S. Commissioner Rolland Schmitten expressed dismay. “This is the most unjust, unkind, unfair vote ever taken in the 56-year history of the IWC,” he said. “To deny people the right to feed their families – Eskimos are calling to ask why. We will leave no stone unturned to change this tragic situation.”

What this was really all about, many observers believe, is an attempt by Japan to depict the IWC as a “dysfunctional” organization (Komatsu’s phrase) when it goes to the biannual meeting in November of the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), in Santiago, Chile. At the last two CITES meetings, Japan and Norway have introduced resolutions looking to have minke whales removed from the endangered list and thus open the door for their being sold again. Shortly after the IWC meeting ended, Japan announced it would also propose easing an embargo on international trade of Bryde’s whales this year. As Andy Ottaway of Brighton’s Campaign Whale organization noted, “CITES’ down-listing of any whales would make the IWC irrelevant.” (The gray whale is another “candidate” whose recovery might be deemed strong enough for down-listing).

At CITES, Japan will have other advocates, including the International Wildlife Management Consortium (IWMC). This group is part of the so-called “sustainable use” or “wise use” movement, and promotes “free trade” of elephant ivory, hawksbill turtle leather, whale products and more, all in the name of conservation. The IWMC is headed by Eugene Lapointe, a French Canadian who was secretary-general of CITES between 1982 and 1990. Lapointe was removed from his post by the U.N., for campaigning against a ban on ivory trade that CITES member nations adopted in 1989, but later received a settlement based on a three-member CITES board’s concluding his dismissal had been “arbitrary and capricious.” Today, five of the nine officers in his organization are former CITES employees. Lapointe says his funding today comes from Japan, Norway, China, Canada, and “two small European countries.”

Alan Macnow, chief American lobbyist for the Japan Whaling Association, believes Japan is also concerned about the increasing involvement of environmental groups in ocean campaigns and overfishing. “Some of the anti-whaling people are even pushing for wildlife, flowers and trees to be put on the banned-from-trade list at CITES,” says Macnow. When it comes to whales, the New York-based Macnow opines: “How anybody can love something that looks like a 15-ton cucumber, I don’t know.”

Another Fisheries Agency official, Joji Morihita, was asked by the New York Times why Japan would subject itself to “growing international opprobrium” for the sake of a near-defunct whaling industry. Morishita responded that its fight is about “principle,” adding: “For many people in Japan, this [IWC] is a prototype for bad precedents that might cause trouble in other international organizations.” Like CITES, perhaps. Or, as U.S. delegate Robert Brownell believes: “Their ultimate fear is, if they give up on whaling, they think they will lose tuna tomorrow. This started after the driftnet moratorium of 1992, where they tried to argue the scientific data was not there. But on a single day, the Japanese, Taiwanese, and Koreans had 600 driftnet vessels out there setting nets long enough to circle the globe one-and-a-quarter times. These were squid and tuna fisheries, but mostly they were just killing and discarding bycatch of other species, plus thousands of seabirds died. And Komatsu was around then, too.”

What the events of Shimonoseki mean for the future of the IWC is uncertain. There is no doubt that Komatsu and company systematically worked to sabotage the organization. The fact that anything got accomplished at the annual meeting was nothing short of miraculous. The likelihood is, an interim gathering will be convened sometime within the next six months – if Japan’s position can be changed – to try once again to resolve the aboriginal bowhead matter. The quotas provided in 1998 don’t expire until the end of 2002. In the course of blocking the hunts beyond that, Japan lost one longstanding ally, the Russian Federation, whose native spokesman Vladimir Ytylin described what happened as “colonialism, divide-and-conquer.” It was, in the end, a sad situation – a poker hand Japan refused to fold, certainly to its detriment in terms of world opinion. Or perhaps it was a surreal form of kabuki theater, where nothing is ever quite what it appears on the surface. Ultimately, the question is what now stands between the whales and yet another potential human onslaught upon them.

Sidebar/Whaling IWC 2002: THE VOTING BLOCS

  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Republic of Korea
  • Mexico
  • Monaco
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Peru
  • Portugal
  • San Marino
  • South Africa
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • UK
  • USA

  • Antigua & Barbuda
  • Benin
  • China, People’s Rep.
  • Dominica
  • Gabon
  • Grenada
  • Guinea, Rep. Of
  • Japan
  • Mongolia
  • Morocco
  • Norway
  • Oman
  • Palau
  • Panama
  • Russian Federation
  • St. Kitts and Nevis
  • St. Lucia
  • St. Vincent & Grenadines
  • Solomon Island