Japan whaling decision may have consequences for Alaska subsistence whalers

The International Whaling Commission recently voted to grant Alaska subsistence hunters a conditional automatic renewal for their bowhead whale quota. Japan’s departure from the IWC could make that automatic renewal less secure in the future. (Creative Commons photo by Kristin Laidre/University of Washington)

Last month Japan announced that it is leaving the international group that regulates whaling and will resume commercial whaling in its own coastal waters.

That move provoked some criticism. Commercial whaling has been banned by the International Whaling Commission since the 1980s.

But separate from that, Japan’s decision may have consequences for Alaska’s legal aboriginal subsistence whaling.

Japan’s departure means it will no longer conduct what it calls scientific whaling outside its waters — which was criticized by some as a loophole. Instead, it will hunt commercially in its own territorial waters and 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

The announcement comes on the heels of a proposal Japan made to resume commercial whaling at a recent meeting of the IWC — a proposal that failed.

Japan’s leaving the commission has potential consequences for Alaska whalers, whose quota for subsistence whaling is set by the IWC.

“It would be in our best interest to have Japan remain with the IWC,” said John Hopson Jr., chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and a whaling captain in Wainwright. “They were a strong ally of ours in obtaining our quota.”

It’s too soon to know the ultimate impact of Japan’s decision. But the country does play an important role at the IWC, according to Jessica Lefevre, a lawyer for AEWC.

“Japan is a key member of the group within the body that refers to themselves as the ‘sustainable use group,’” said Lefevre. Others include Norway and Iceland, as well as some African, Caribbean and Pacific Island countries.

She said it’s possible that other countries in the sustainable use group could follow Japan’s example and leave the IWC as well — diminishing support for Alaska whalers.

That could make a critical rule change that passed last year less secure. The rule change made the renewal of aboriginal subsistence whaling quotas — including Alaska’s — automatic, provided certain conditions are met.

“The main vulnerability for us is that automatic renewal could be challenged at some point in the future if the … balance of power within the IWC, given Japan’s departure, shifts more in the direction of the anti-whaling coalition,” said Lefevre.

It would take a three-fourths majority vote of the IWC to change the current quota rule.

Hopson said AEWC will work with the United States and other IWC countries to try to find a path forward that preserves Japan’s membership.

He said his group will have a better sense of their next steps after AEWC’s next board meeting later this month.