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This paper was received by email from IFAW Australia on Tuesday 6th June 2006

Propaganda and pretext

Japan's strategy to gain control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC)

Reprinted from: Marine Pollution Bulletin 52 (2006) 363-366

Sidney Holt

Tel./fax: +39 075 830 7035. E-mail address:
Adviser to Global Ocean Charity and Third Millennium Foundation.
Voc. Palazzetta 68, Paciano (PG) 06060, Italy

This Viewpoint describes and analyses the history and current features of the strategy of the Government of Japan, and the associated Institute for Cetacean Research in Tokyo, to regain control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), to legitimise renewed unsustainable commercial whaling andto dismantle conservation measures taken by the IWC over the past three decades.Akey element in that strategy now is to promote and nourish the false idea that the present crisis in world fisheries is significantly caused by the consumption of valuable fish by increasing whale populations.

This Viewpoint is not about contamination of the ocean and its inhabitants by chemicals, sound or other forms of intrusive energy, but rather about verbal pollution, distortions and incompetence. My subject is whaling, fishing, the conservation of whales and the sustainable use of marine living resources.

For two decades the governments of a few countries, whose vessels and nationals were engaged in commercial whaling, controlled the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which had been created in 1946 to regulate whaling, and conserve whale resources for the benefit of both present and future (human) generations. That the IWC- labelled as a ''whalers'' club-failed in all those tasks is widely known. In the third decade of its existence (1970- 1979) those same states, augmented by a few new whalers, counterbalanced by a few new non-whalers, continued to hold control to the extent that the whalers held enough votes to block most proposed conservation measures. The outside world-represented as the UN General Assembly- had meanwhile called upon the IWC to consider declaring a precautionary 10-year moratorium on all commercial whaling. Whaling governments, such as Norway, that had supported the UNGA Resolution, of course took the opposite view within the IWC, and continued to block action until 1979. In that year, however, the whalers lost their stranglehold and a proposal by the newlyindependent Republic of Seychelles to ban commercial whaling from the Indian Ocean was adopted.

Two years later all catching of sperm whales was banned, and the following year a pause in all other commercial whaling was declared, on another proposal by Seychelles, not for 10 years but indefinitely. This decision- commonly, but erroneously, called ''the moratorium''- applied to all whale species for which the IWC accepts responsibility, i.e., all baleen whales and, among the toothed whales, the sperm, the northern bottlenose and the orca. These supposedly binding decisions were made by the necessary three-fourths majority of voting IWC Members. The critical point had arrived when, early in 1982, some of the countries conducting whaling from land-stations to supply the Japanese meat market let it be known, very discreetly, that they would phase out their operations if given sufficient time-three years-to meet their advance contracts to supply meat and to make other social readjustments. The crux was that one of these- Spain-voted in favour of the pause and by so doing cast the decisive vote. Japan, Norway, Iceland and the USSR voted against the 1982 decision and subsequently all of them but Iceland filed ''objections'' to it, as the ICRW gives them the right to do. The Icelandic Parliament over-rode, by a single vote, the Government's intention to object. And although the USSR had objected as a matter of principle it did in fact also cease it's whaling in the Southern Hemisphere, which had until then been conducted solely to serve the Japanese market and earn hard currency. Other Members engaged at the time in commercial whaling also voted against the pause but did not object to it and they all subsequently ceased operations, some of them-notably Brazil and Chile-becoming among the strongest advocates of continuing the pause in whaling.

The delayed general ''moratorium'' came into effect in 1986. The ''recruitment'' by Seychelles, and other countries, of Indian Ocean coastal states, such as India, Kenya, Oman and Egypt, to IWC membership, in order to implement their national interests in marine conservation, had encouraged other non-whaling states to do likewise. But Norway, having exerted its right to ''object'' to the moratorium, as well as to a declaration by the IWC that the minke whales in the northeast Atlantic were depleted and therefore ''Protected'', continued its operations. Japan, which had also ''objected'', withdrew its objection as part of a deal with the USA that would allow Japanese fishing vessels to operate for a while in the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the North Pacific, under licence, but it continued its whaling through a loophole in the ICRW which allows Member states to award their nationals Special Permits for the professed purpose of scientific research. Such permits have no constraints with regard to numbers of whales to be killed, their location, the species, the duration of the killing programme, or the type of individual whale (e.g. its size, whether it is a calf or nursing mother etc.).1

In the year that Japan began large-scale ''scientific whaling'' its authorities decided to launch a secret exercise to ''turn around'' several of the countries that had supported the moratorium decision to ensure that a blocking vote (one fourth plus one of voting Members) would be able to prevent any further conservation moves.3 They thought they had succeeded by 1993 but in 1994 failed to block the declaration by the IWC of the entire Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary, following a proposal by France. This hitch was only temporary, however, and in any case the Southern Ocean was, in both political and scientific terms, a very special case, linked to the battle by many Antarctic treaty powers to delay (for at least 50 years) exploration for, and exploitation of, minerals on the continent. Thereafter, once assured of a blocking one-fourth, the Japanese authorities decided to move towards gaining a simple majority with which to block even non-binding ''unwelcome'' IWC decisions and, as soon became apparent, to dismantle the fragile structure of conservation measures that hadbeen erected since 1972. This was called, in Japan, ''vote consolidation'' and by others ''vote buying'' (see for example, ECCEA, 1997). 2

1 - The Icelandic authorities made the same decision and conducted ''scientific whaling'' for several years; this was eventually stopped by pressure from the people of Iceland and the huge cost to the country, whose economy depends on fishing, of boycotts of fish imports from Iceland by traders in Europe encouraged by vigorous consumer campaigns by environmental NGOs, principally Greenpeace.

2 - An attempt to bribe the Government of Seychelles (to dismiss its delegation and to vote with Japan against its original conservation policy) failed because its President resisted and went so far as to publish the exchange of messages between his Government and the diplomatic representatives of Japan. The proposed pay-off was more than 20 million dollars. A few years later Seychelles decided simply to leave the IWC rather than be submitted to further continued diplomatic and financial pressures.

Readers of Marine Pollution Bulletin might be surprised at the attention now being given to this process. Various means of persuasion have, after all, been used by richer or more powerful states to ensure the support of the governments of weaker or poorer states throughout the array of inter-governmental negotiations and decision-making, not least in the United Nations system. However, what makes the IWC different is that the Japanese efforts have continued for two decades, with respect to what is, after all, a rather trivial and economically unimportant issue in world affairs. This is not the place to speculate on the deep reasons for this apparently irrational behaviour by the national authorities of one of the world's richest and most influential countries. But from one perspective it should be realised that the protection of endangered whales has been a global ''flagship'' environmental campaign since 1972, and, from another perspective, Japan's actions have involved the systematic corruption of a particular field of application of marine science: the management of sea fisheries. That such corruption was possible raises serious questions about the way that scientific advice is formulated and used-or not used-in international marine affairs, and in particular the inherent weaknesses and flaws in the structure of the IWC and of its Scientific Committee.

Japan did of course have another option: to withdraw from the IWC and continue its commercial whaling virtually unimpeded. But this could have had adverse political repercussions, not least to flout the imperative under the Law of the Sea for management and conservation to be assured by intergovernmental instruments such as regional and specialised fisheries management commissions. Fear of those repercussions did not, however, prevent the authorities from repeatedly threatening withdrawal from time to time. (There were precedents for this, notably withdrawals by Norway and The Netherlands, in the years before 1972, when they did not like IWC decisions.) Instead, however, and to create an illusion of seriousness and responsibility, Japan constructed a rationale for its scientific whaling programme. This was, initially, that it was needed in order to provide better estimates of the parameters of mathematical expressions used to provide scientific advice regarding the application of the New Management Procedure (NMP) that the IWC had adopted in 1974 (formally in 1975, coming into effect in 1976) following the UNGA Resolution of 1972. In particular the claim was that the scientific whaling programme would, by allowing the taking of unbiased samples of whales, provide estimates of the natural mortality rate of minke whales in the southern hemisphere. This claim was subsequently shown by the IWC's Scientific Committee to be unrealisable. By the 1990s a revised claim was being made: that data would be provided to make more efficient the application of a Revised Management Procedure (RMP) for the regulation of the catching of baleen whales that had been developed by the Committee and adopted provisionally, though not yet implemented, by the Commission itself. This claim, too, was quickly shown to have no substance.

Some time in the early 1990s a decision was taken in Tokyo to work for a simple majority in the IWC. There were now few if any governments left to ''turn'', so the strategy would have to be to persuade more countries to join the IWC and strengthen the Japanese-led coalition. The persuasion used in all cases was the false assertion that recovery of whales and the failure of the IWC to re-open commercial whaling constituted a threat to those countries' fisheries. The ''vote consolidation programme'' went into second gear and, by the time of the 2005 IWC meeting in the Republic of Korea, the simple majority had been achieved. Or, at least the Japanese authorities thought it had been. Again it turned out that there were some hitches such as the required payments not being paid on time, credentials of delegations not being in order, and accessions to the IWC of some other countries adhering to the other, non-whaling coalition. Unless there are more adhesions to the latter coalition, in 2005-2006, Japan will in 2006 controla secure simple majority-and government officials have publicly declared that intention, and indicated in some detail what they will do with it.

So what will Japan do with its simple majority, since it cannot(without controlling three-fourths of the votes, an extremely unlikely development) end the current pause or abolish existing sanctuaries, as it would like to do. Previous speculations about this were proven correct when the aims were revealed at the meeting in Korea. They include: ensuring that future voting is by secret ballot (in the expectation that this will help take public pressure off the politicians and delegations of countries that back Japan in the IWC); abolishing the recently established Conservation Committee; removing from the IWC's Agenda annoying subjects such a whale-watching, humane killing and consideration of proposals for more sanctuaries, specifically in the South Atlantic and the South Pacific; and instructing the Scientific Committee to cease its ongoing consideration of the conservation status of the smaller cetacean species. We could also expect a cascade of Resolutions deeply critical of all other conservation measures, such as sanctuaries and of catch limits that might be set, outside sanctuaries, under the extremely conservative and precautionary version of the RMP adopted but not implemented 14 years ago. Another speculation, to which I do not personally subscribe, was that Japan would act to exclude all international non-govern mental organisations (iNGOs) from attending IWC meetings as observers. 3

While all this political manoeuvring has been going on, and closely associated with it, Japan has been steadily expanding its ''scientific'' whaling activities. They are now conducted also in the North Pacific (this helps the cost-benefit calculations for year-round pelagic whaling by a single fleet of one factory ship and a group of catcher boats). The annual catches of minke whales have been doubled, and special permits awarded also for the catching of Bryde's, fin, sei and sperm whales and the endangered humpback and fin whales. These expansions will contribute to the profitability of these operations if and when the large government subsidy to them is discontinued or reduced, especially as one of any of the larger species yields meat equivalent to several of the much smaller minke whales.

As in earlier years the Japanese Government feels the need to give a plausible but spurious ''scientific'' justification of its new strategy. This takes the form of excavating an old claim, dating from the 1970s, and renewing and updating it, that the minke whales (which official Japanese sources insist have been increasing rapidly, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence for this) are impeding the recovery of other depleted species such as the blue whale, and even of the humpback and fin whales (despite the fact that at least the humpbacks, which were almost exterminated, are increasing).

Adifferent justification is needed, however, for the activities in the NorthPacific. Thisis found in the fact that some of the baleen whales in that region-especially the minke- eat significant quantities of fishes, some of them of species that are exploited commercially by Japan and some other fishing nations. Claims that the whales are a threat to fisheries coincide with the revelations by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) and by other bodies and analysts that there is in fact a global fisheries crisis, although the general opinion is that this is due mainly to over-fishing with perhaps contributions from both natural and man-made environmental changes. Apart from other intentions, this claim allows the Japanese authorities to be more persuasive of yet more countries, none of which have ever previously shown the slightest interest in whales or whaling, to join the IWC. But they go further. In recent years we have seen the remarkable sight of those same members of the Japanese supporting group in the IWC playing exactly the same role in bodies such as FAO's Committee on Fisheries (COFI)-in many case with delegations composed of the same people(Holt, 2005). Accompanying these activities is an unending spate of propagandistic materials declaring whales to be a prime cause of the fisheries crisis. 3

3 - It is true that Japan has from time to time sought, and failed, to make specific exclusions-these have included IUCN, IFAW, Greenpeace and others-but exclusion of all would cause a financial crisis in the IWC because several hundred iNGOs have to pay exorbitant annual fees for the mere privilege of sitting in the conference room and not distributing documents or talking to delegates while doing so!

I think the underlying strategy of the Japanese authorities in this matter goes beyond the now revealed issues mentioned above. The ''whales-are-eating-our-fish'' argument is a pretext for ''culling'', to prevent the recovery of depleted populations and reduce others. It is a policy of deliberately unsustainable whaling. In the present state of the world's whale stocks only levels of commercial whaling that are biologically unsustainable could possibly provide some short-term profits, without substantial subsidy. In the case of pelagic whaling by Japan the subsidy of course is in the partial government funding of ''research''; the rest of the ''research'' costs are explicitly covered by the proceeds from sale of the whale meat obtained, a device that was certainly not envisaged by the drafters of the ICRW. If we may assume, reasonably, that the subsidised whaling by Japan has been just balancing its books, then it is evident that the greatly increased numbers of minke whales to be killed in the 2005/2006 southern and the 2006 northern hemisphere seasons, together with the significant numbers of larger species of baleen whales, will make these operations profitable with a reduced subsidy or perhaps even with none. Any other biologically sustainable and economically profitable pelagic whaling would necessarily have to await the recovery under protection of, at least, the fin, sei and blue whales in the Antarctic and the North Pacific: that will take several decades, at least.

At this time in world affairs it needs a strong argument to swim against the idea of sustainable development and the sustainable use of wild living resources such as fishes. ''Culling'' predators claimed to be harmful to human interests unfortunatelyappeals to many people with little appreciation of the complexity and essential unpredictability of ecosystems, particularly marine ones. Robert A. Heinlein's comment, attributed to the Notebooks of Lazerus Long, 1973, is appropriate here: ''The Truth of a Proposition has nothing to do with its Credibility. And vice versa''.

To support this ''culling'' strategy, and justify expanded ''scientific whaling'', involving looking inside the stomachs of many more whales, the Government of Japan has, through its Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR) in Tokyo, distributed a number of pseudo-scientific documents purporting to show that whales consume immensely more ''living marine resources'' than are caught by humans, and that this makes them a threat to human welfare. These papers have been very widely used as propaganda but never peer-reviewed or published except in numerous glossy pamphlets issued by the ICR, and quoted in many press releases and briefings all over the world. The claim is itself false but is also essentially irrelevant to the question of whether or not there really is a serious competition for food resources between whales and humans. The ICR documents contain stupendous mistakes of method and errors of calculation, highly selective use of limited data, grossly misleading ''conclusions'' and other evidence of scientific incompetence. An institute that produces such materials, and uses them to prop up a national strategy to further deplete, for more short-term profit, already stressed marine resources, should not be treated by the international scientific community as a legitimate research body (see also Gales et al., 2005).


ECCEA, 1997. Japan's Strategy to Control the World's Living Marine Resources IFAW and Eastern Caribbean Coalition for Environmental Awareness, Third Millennium Foundation, 2002, revised 2004.

Gales, N.J et al., 2005. Japan's whaling plan under scrutiny. Nature 435, 883-884. Holt, S.J., 2005.

Are whales enemies of people? Meeting of COFI, Rome 15-19 Feb 2005, available from AFAW, Bristol.

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