Japan Blocks Ocean Conservation Measures

Protesters outside a Santa Monica restaurant charged with illegally serving whale. George Peper

Pacific nation leads fight to stop bans on commercial whaling, sharking finning, and overfishing tuna

Not many filmmakers follow up an Academy Award-winning performance with an undercover sting operation. But in his continuing effort to stop the worldwide slaughter of dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals, Louie Psihoyos (who took home an Oscar this month for directing The Cove, about a secrect dolphin-killing operation in Japan) is prepared to expose renegade sushi restaurants across the United States for serving illegal whale meat. His first target — a restaurant called The Hump outside the Santa Monica airport — was forced to shut its doors on Saturday after Psihoyos’ team filmed the sale of thick, pink slices of meat and smuggled out DNA samples confirming they belonged to endangered sei whales, prompting federal charges. (Importing the meat of marine mammals is illegal under U.S. law.) Psihoyos, founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society, is now going after restaurants in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York that are rumored to also serve kujira (whale). “Wherever you are,” he said in an interview outside The Hump before it closed down, “we will find you.”

Psihoyos’ crusades are certainly getting noticed in Japan (whose government and news media have attacked his film), but despite the bad publicity, the country continues to push for fishing and whaling policies that environmental groups say will cause further harm to ocean ecosystems and continue to push endangered fish and marine mammal populations to the brink of extinction — and beyond.

Already this year, Japan has succeeded in fighting off a ban on exports of Atlantic bluefin tuna. There’s strong scientific evidence that the bluefin is nearing extinction due to overfishing; since 1970, the number of tuna harvested each year has plummeted by at least 80 percent. At the triennial gathering of the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that just concluded this week in Qatar, a proposed export ban on bluefin — backed by the United States and bitterly opposed by Japan, which declared that it would ignore the ban even if it passed — failed by a vote of 68 to 20, with 30 abstentions. Many countries didn’t want to lose the revenue; Atlantic bluefin remains the most valuable fish in the sea, with Japanese brokers commonly paying $10,000 or more for a single fish. Japan consumes approximately three-quarters of the global catch, nearly all served raw as sushi or sashimi. Major bluefin exporters such as France, Spain, and Italy followed Japan’s lead. “The market for this fish is just too lucrative, and the pressure from fishing interests too great, for enough governments to support a truly sustainable future for the fish,” says Sue Lieberman, director of international policy with the Pew Environment Group. Regulation of bluefin fishing will remain with an industry-dominated body whose allowable harvest quotas have ignored the advice of its own scientists and proven completely ineffective at slowing the bluefin decline.

Following the failure to protect bluefin, CITES then voted down several measures (also backed by the United States and opposed by Japan, Russia, and China) designed to protect endangered shark species from “finning” — a practice in which fishermen slice the fins off of sharks and then dump them back into the ocean to die. Shark fins are prized in some Asian countries to make soup. Scalloped hammerhead, oceanic whitefish, and spiny dogfish were all among the species on the docket for protection by CITES. Japan argued, as it did on the bluefin ban, that regional fisheries groups — not CITES — should manage local shark populations. But in some areas, the rate of species decline exceeds 90 percent, according to studies.

Next in Japan’s sights: ending a ban on commercial whaling imposed nearly a quarter-century ago. Despite this prohibition by the 88 member nations of the International Whaling Commission, Japan continues to hunt whales thanks to a loophole that allows for “scientific research” — something environmental groups claim is little more than a pretext that allows continued commercial hunting. Indeed, the Japanese fleet kills more than 1,000 whales annually in the Southern Ocean and then sells the meat in the country’s markets and restaurants. Two other nations, Norway and Iceland, have defied the moratorium outright and followed Japan in establishing their own yearly quotas. Since the moratorium took effect in 1986, according to IWC estimates, more than 33,000 whales have been killed — including the endangered fin, sperm and humpback species (as well as the sei whales being served at The Hump in Santa Monica).

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) next meets in June, and two competing proposals are up for consideration. One would suspend the moratorium for 10 years and allow the resumption of commercial whaling. This is actually a compromise that could reduce the numbers of whales now being killed by setting annual quotas through the IWC, instead of allowing Japan, Norway, and Iceland to continue to bend (or outright flaunt) the rules by setting their own limits. Cristian Maquiera of Chile, chairman of the 88-nation IWC, has called this approach a “paradigm shift” that would achieve some consensus about whaling beyond the rancorous status quo. However, if it’s approved, Norway and Iceland could then start exporting whale meat to Japan, and South Korea has announced it will pursue its own commercial whaling venture.

Another proposal, put forward by Australia, instead keeps the moratorium in place and lays out a timeline and regulatory framework to stop so-called “scientific whaling” altogether. Australia has also threatened Japan with legal action at the International Court of Justice unless it commits to ceasing its Antarctic hunts.

Many conservation groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, are urging the Obama administration to oppose any effort to weaken the moratorium, but which way the United States will go is very much in question. Commercial whaling resulted in the demise of most of the world’s great whales, whose comeback has only begun since the moratorium was implemented. Joel Reynolds, director of NRDC’s marine mammal protection program, says “the whaling ban has been a pivotal step forward in the struggle both to save those species decimated by hunting and to recover whale populations throughout the world.” But whales are far from fully recovered and still threatened by ongoing hunts, as well as factors such as military sonar, ocean pollution, and climate change. Activists hope that the whale-meat scandal brought to light by Psihoyos’ sting of the Santa Monica sushi restaurant could help step up the pressure of international public opinion before the IWC vote in June.