At the right time every season, Australians gather at whale-watching points along the east and west coasts, or take to the water in boats and canoes in the hopes of seeing the giants of the deep, mostly humpback whales, making their way up and down the coast, travelling to and from their breeding grounds.
Australians are often happy to spend up big to see whales: according to the most recent estimates, from 2008, commercial whale-watching was worth $31 million to the Australian economy each year.
Commercial operations in Sydney, Perth, Cairns and Hobart offer deals and days out and “extreme whale watching” and “extraordinary opportunities”. Other Australians fly a long way for the chance to swim with minke whales around the Great Barrier Reef in far north Queensland.
Whale sightings are reported on the radio and the internet, and a humpback playing in Sydney Harbour in July was greeted with rapturous applause.
Australians, by and large, love whales.
Unsurprising, then, that Australian politicians of all stripes have fought hard to limit Japanese whale hunting, with environment ministers turning up to the annual meetings of the International Whaling Commission to wave the flag. The Coalition’s Josh Frydenberg has spoken up for whales. So too, through the years, have Greg Hunt and Malcolm Turnbull, and Labor’s Peter Garrett.
At this year’s IWC meeting, now under way in Florianopolis, Brazil, Japan has taken a strong line with a proposal that could start the ball rolling for a return to commercial whale hunting. Japan already has an annual kill quota of 333 minke whales that it hunts in Antarctic waters and says this kill quota is part of a “scientific” program, and therefore permissible under IWC rules.
Japan has been manoeuvring with IWC members for years, pushing to overturn the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling. In force since 1986, the moratorium is thought to have saved several severely depleted whale species from extinction. (Japan is a signatory to the moratorium, in theory if not in practice.)
This year, though, the Japanese have taken an even stronger position at the IWC meeting and Australian Marine Conservation Society campaigns manager Tooni Mahto fears the pro-whaling lobby may even prevail.
“The main game at this year’s meeting is Japan’s (proposal), The Way Forward of the IWC,” she says. “Basically, if it was passed, it would mean an end to the global ban on whaling.”
The introduction of the Japanese Way Forward proposal criticises the functioning of the IWC and says: “Japan’s proposals to establish catch limits for certain whale stocks have been repeatedly rejected even though it was demonstrated that the proposals will have no adverse effect on stocks in the proposed areas.
“The current proposal is a renewed attempt to restore the functions of the IWC as a resource management organisation with novel and drastic approach.”
This approach, Mahto says, is an “outrageous proposal” to establish a committee to set commercial whaling quotas from 2020.
“Ever since the moratorium came in, Japan has been pushing to get it overturned. I think it’s fair to say that at this IWC meeting they’re probably the closest to achieving that.”
Even after the moratorium was first enforced, Japan continued to hunt whales, up to 950 a year, using a loophole and deeming the hunt for “scientific” research.
This continued until Australia led a legal challenge against the annual slaughter, which was heard in the International Court of Justice. In 2014, the court slapped down Japan’s so-called “scientific program” reasoning, and the next year Japan left the minkes alone. Japan has since exempted itself from the International Court of Justice with regards to marine issues.
A year or so after the International Court of Justice ruling, the hunters were back in Antarctic waters, and since then Japanese whalers have been killing 333 minke whales a year, some of them in protected zones.
Just last week, WWF declared that Japanese whalers had killed more than 50 minke whales in the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area in Antarctica.
Iceland and Norway also ignore the ban on commercial whaling and set themselves annual kill quotas. Naturally, they line up with Japan in the IWC meeting, among many other tiny nations (including landlocked nations such as Mali in Africa and Mongolia in Asia), many of them client states of Japan. Yet of the 87-plus nation members of the IWC, only those that have paid their dues can vote. Many observers believe, though, that Japan will make sure the pro-whaling nations will be ready to vote.
Mahto says the 87 member nations of the IWC are about evenly split between those in favour of commercial whaling and those against it.
“The countries that are opposed to whaling need to stand up and be counted,” she says.
“Otherwise there is a real risk of passing changes to its rules and potentially allowing a return to commercial whaling.”
The Fraser government banned commercial whaling in 1979 in Australia, and ever since then Canberra has been a strong opponent of whaling, with champions of the IWC global ban on all sides of politics.
Yet Donald Rothwell, an expert in international maritime law at the Australian National University, says Australia can do more to block Japan’s whaling program.
Although Japan has exempted itself from the jurisdiction of the ICJ, Rothwell and his colleagues say a strong legal challenge against its “scientific whaling” program could be mounted in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.
This tribunal has compulsory mechanisms for dispute settlement, Rothwell says, and Japan couldn’t simply exempt itself from its jurisdiction.
“Governments such as Australia have not really sought to actively challenge the Japanese position on that matter,” he says, referring to Japan’s whaling program.
It may be, Rothwell says, that Australia is happy to have reduced Japan’s annual whale hunt from more than 900 whales annually to 333, but he says more can be done to block the annual hunt altogether.
Using the IWC to stymie Japan’s aims, he says, doesn’t work because Japan has become accustomed to ignoring condemnation and criticism aired in the commission, and simply ignores resolutions it doesn’t agree with.
Japan’s current proposal to the IWC, he says, is the “start of a process” that ultimately may lead to a resumption of commercial whaling by 2020.
“To start that process, Japan just needs to have a simple majority of support within the commission, and that’s possible,” Rothwell says. “Japan has proven in the past to be very adept at making sure that small nations that support its position do attend these meetings.”
One of Japan’s ultimate aims, he says, is to resume “coastal whaling” in Japanese waters, which is banned under the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling.
WWF global cetacean and marine turtle manager Aimee Leslie is in Brazil at the IWC meeting, and she says nothing will be certain until after the votes are held, simply because it is almost impossible to work out which nations will be eligible to vote on the day.
Japan, she says, wants to create a “sustainable whaling committee”, which then would make recommendations on the numbers of whales various nations could hunt, for commercial or other reasons, and these recommendations then could be approved by the commission with a simple majority of votes.
Yet, Leslie says, whaling nations failed to respect the quotas they were given in the years before the IWC moratorium began in 1982, so it is unlikely any new quotas will be followed.
Meanwhile, Japan has resolutely ignored recommendations regarding its “scientific” whaling program, she says, and when an expert panel reviewed the program, Japan failed to even respond to two-thirds of its recommendations.
“This is definitely a very dangerous and concrete proposal from Japan, where they’re saying this is a way forward that we can agree on, also because they’re presenting it as a resolution, which can be approved by a simple majority,” she says. “Hence every vote counts.”
Peter Harrison, founding director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Southern Cross University, says the Japanese proposal isn’t just one of the usual threats from pro-whaling nations.
“This time they’re trying to break the door down,” he says. “It’s a full-frontal attack. They’ve been more subtle in the past.”
Japanese whalers take minke whales, which Tokyo argues have reached sustainable numbers. But Harrison says accurate estimations of minke populations are incredibly difficult, and expensive, and it is impossible to be sure of population numbers.
The familiar humpbacks migrate up and down the coast quite close to the Australian shore, delighting onlookers and making it easier to estimate their numbers. Other species, Harrison says, including minkes, migrate farther offshore and they are seen only rarely because there simply aren’t enough people boating far off the coast to encounter them.
“We’re blind to what’s happening to most other species,” Harrison says.
An initial estimate of the minke population taken in the 1980s was far larger than the apparent population numbers a decade later, he says, but it remains unclear whether that is a statistical error arising from insufficient data, or whether there in fact had been a population plunge.
So while the minke whale population may number in the hundreds of thousands, there’s no really good understanding of its trajectory, Harrison says.
He says Japan expends so much political capital on its “scientific” whaling program and its defiance of the International Court of Justice ruling simply because the Japanese are determined to maintain the crews’ whaling skills and keep the whaling fleet operational.
The Japanese are playing a long game, he says. “They are looking forward to when the commercial whaling ban is overturned, and they will have the ships and crews ready to take advantage of it.”
The Japanese have refrained from hunting humpback whales mainly, Harrison says, because humpbacks are a much more sensitive issue for many nations in the southern hemisphere, particularly Australia.
Meanwhile, whales face increasing pressures from all sides, he says. Ship-strike has been wreaking carnage, mostly in the northern hemisphere. It can be difficult to detect whales at sea, particularly in rough conditions. Bulk carriers have huge momentum and no stopping power, so even if a whale is seen, it can be difficult to avoid.
Net entanglement is also claiming whale victims, mostly the smaller species.
Krill harvesting in the Southern Ocean, while seemingly well-managed now, will be affected by warming sea temperatures and changes in sea ice, and some experts fear the large whales that feed primarily on the tiny crustaceans may be affected.
The biggest threat of all, of course, is a return to commercial whaling, which wrought such havoc in whale populations before the moratorium. Japan has spent the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars to prop up its whaling ambitions, Harrison says.
“There’s no substantial market for the whale meat in Japan,” he says. “It’s an ongoing investment.
“They expect to eventually prevail and return to open whaling. If that happens, it’s almost certain Australia’s humpback whales would be on the kill list.”