(Sochi, Russia) – Conservation organisations today welcomed the news that Japan’s import and sale of sei whale products from its controversial “scientific” whaling programme in the North Pacific has been censured as illegal by the global body entrusted with protecting endangered species from trade.
Sei whales are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means that international commercial trade in their products is banned. As Japan mostly hunts sei whales on the high seas beyond its national jurisdiction, under CITES rules, bringing these products into Japan is considered international trade (so-called “Introduction from the Sea”). Currently, Japan hunts as many as 134 sei whales each year (the third biggest animal on the planet) under its “scientific” whaling programme in the North Pacific.
During its 70th annual meeting in Sochi, Russia, members of the CITES Standing Committee nearly unanimously concluded that Japan was acting in violation of the convention by landing thousands of tonnes of sei whale meat for primarily commercial purposes. The Committee then agreed that Japan will take immediate remedial action to address this compliance issue and report on its specific actions by 1 February 2019 for consideration at the next Committee meeting in May 2019. At that time, if the Committee does not accept Japan’s remediation plan it could recommend that the other 182 governments impose trade sanctions on Japan.
“This is a significant win for sei whales and another blow by the international community against Japan’s so-called ‘scientific’ whaling,” said Matthew Collis, Director of International Policy for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “For 16 years Japan has been importing and selling sei whale products; this is a persistent and intentional violation of CITES rules and must stop.”
Sue Fisher, consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute, congratulated the Standing Committee on its decision. “Anything less than a firm rebuke of Japan’s longstanding and large-scale commercial exploitation of sei whales under the guise of research would have had devastating consequences – not just for the protection of endangered species from commercial interests but also for the credibility of CITES.”
For years, Japan has presented its whaling as a “scientific” endeavour, but that point is irrelevant to CITES, which regulates the end use of products after they are brought to Japan. The vast majority of each sei whale is packaged purely for commercial use, amounting to thousands of tonnes of sei whale meat from more than 1,500 sei whales in the last 16 years. However, Japan has been using CITES certificates – which should only cover the importation of limited scientific samples – to import sei whale meat and parts for the express purpose of commercial sale throughout Japan.
“There was no question about Japan’s non-compliance. With this decision, the CITES Standing Committee put the integrity of the convention above politics,” said Erica Lyman, Professor of Clinical Law at the International Environmental Law Project, Lewis & Clark Law School.
“This decision by the CITES members demonstrates that international conservation efforts can work. Japan has for years engaged in heavy trade of an endangered species. Japan is now required to achieve permanent compliance with the treaty by stopping importing sei whale meat and blubber,” said Astrid Fuchs, Programme Lead at WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation).
“The issue of Japan’s use of meat from sei whale taken on the high seas is important, both for the whales themselves and also the integrity of CITES. Japan is a significant importer and exporter of wildlife products and it is now clear that Japan has been on the wrong side of the rules in this matter. Japan will now have to follow the instructions it has been given or face potentially serious consequences,” said Nicola Beynon, Head of Campaigns at Humane Society International in Australia.
CITES’ censure of the commercial nature of Japan’s North Pacific sei whale hunt follows a 2014 judgment by the International Court of Justice, which found that Japan’s Antarctic whaling was not for scientific purposes. Last month, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) determined that Japan’s lethal whaling was not scientifically justified and voted to defeat the country’s attempts to resume commercial whaling.
Image: Christin Khan, NOAA / NEFSC