50 whales killed by Japanese whalers in protected area

The Ross Sea in the Antarctic has been home to a Marine Protected Area since 2016, but research by the WWF has revealed Japanese whalers continue to operate there as the country seeks to bring about a return to commercial whaling.

Minke whale
Minke whale

Image: Len 2040 / Flickr / Creative Commons

Kate Dickinson

Japanese whalers killed more than 50 minke whales in just two months this year in a protected area of the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean.

The stretch of ocean south of New Zealand, part of the Ross Sea, has been designated a Marine Protected Area (MPA) since October 2016 – the world’s largest such area at almost 600,000 square miles. The Ross Sea has been dubbed the ‘Last Ocean’ as its remote nature has allowed it to remain largely untouched by human activity, maintaining a rich and biodiverse ecosystem.

Agreement on the protected zone came from the 24 member states of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which includes Australia, South Africa, the United States, the European Union, China, India and the Russian Federation. The MPA contains General Protection Zones where no commercial fishing is allowed, as well as a Special Research Zone in which limited research fishing can take place for krill and toothfish.

Despite Japan being a member of CCAMLR, the Commission’s rules on the General Protection Zone do not cover whaling, despite thousands of other species being protected, enabling Japanese whalers to kill upwards of 50 minke whales within that area in January and February this year. This news was revealed by WWF yesterday (4 September) at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) – which Japan is chairing despite its opposition to IWC rulings.

The IWC introduced a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, but Japan, Iceland, Norway and Greenland all operate under exceptions to this law. For Greenlanders, this is an ‘aboriginal subsistence’ ruling, meaning that a certain amount of whaling is currently allowed as a cultural practice.

Both Iceland and Norway have formally objected to the IWC’s moratorium, opting out of the international agreement via a loophole which enables them to continue hunting whales. Japan, meanwhile, hunts under a scientific programme, though its many detractors say this is merely a front for continued commercial whaling, with whale meat continuing to find its way to market. Japanese whalers kill in the region of 300 minke whales every year, while over 38,000 whales of all species have been killed by Japan, Iceland and Norway since the moratorium was introduced.

Japan has repeatedly stated that its ultimate aim is to return to commercial whale hunting, and is using its ‘scientific’ research to try and prove that minke populations are high enough to sustain this. The government passed a law in 2017 enshrining the practice – despite the number of Japanese people who eat whale continuing to fall.  

However, there remains strong resistance to commercial whaling from other nations – and campaigners want to see an end to all forms of whaling in the Antarctic. Commenting on the news of Japan’s actions in the Ross Sea, WWF polar expert Rod Downie said: “The banner of so called ‘scientific whaling’ needs to stop once and for all. The IWC and CCAMLR must work together and take immediate action to close these loopholes currently being exploited by Japan to ensure this ocean sanctuary is protected for future generations.”