In October 2022, the 68th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was held in Portorož, Slovenia. IWC68 was the first face-to-face meeting in four years, since IWC67 in 2018, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 68th meeting was also the first in which Japan, which withdrew from the IWC in 2019, participated as an observer. This status allows Japan to speak and submit documents at the meeting. However, it does not have the right to vote on IWC decisions.

This first session in four years brought attention to the IWC’s changing priorities, including several points of significance that deserve discussion. They are examined in the four part series that follows.

Part 1 of 4

An Unusual International Whaling Commission

Where is the IWC headed?

Those of us who have attended the IWC for many years would have the impression that the 68th session was a quiet one. There was little of the conflict that has been characteristic of the IWC. 

Japan is one of the leading pro-whaling nations ー those that support the sustainable use of aquatic resources, including whales. Now that it has withdrawn from the IWC, it may be that the source of conflict has either diminished or even disappeared.

On the other hand, even after Japan’s withdrawal, the IWC still includes whaling nations such as Norway and Iceland. And it includes more than 30 countries that support sustainable use of whales as a living marine resource

In addition, the agenda for the 68th session of the IWC included the South Atlantic Sanctuary Proposal. Its premise is a motion to make the South Atlantic a whale sanctuary. This is a proposal that has been consistently opposed by the pro-sustainable use countries. 

Moreover, the pro-sustainable use side also submitted two resolution proposals. One would position whales as food in the context of food security. The other was a resolution to reinstate the International Whaling Commission as the organization that accepts and controls whaling, as its name implies, and to lift the moratorium on commercial whaling. 

Naturally, these resolutions were unacceptable to the anti-whaling nations.

IWC68: Less Time for Conflict

So why was the 68th annual meeting of the IWC a less confrontational meeting? There are several factors that may have contributed to this. 

Weakening of the rivalry by Japan’s withdrawal is undoubtedly one factor. However, there are at least two more significant factors. 

The first is the progress of the IWC toward becoming a whale protection organization. This has already been evident since the 67th session of the 67th Session in 2018 and before. The interest of anti-whaling nations has shifted from opposing whaling to promoting programs to protect whales. 

Rather than spending time and effort on confrontation, it is more important to work on challenges including avoiding bycatch of whales, dealing with climate change, the plastic waste problem, and other conservation programs. The more such activities are intensified, the more the IWC will be transformed in reality. And such changes have already been progressing.

Meeting of the International Whaling Commission IWC68 in October 2022. (© Institute of Cetacean Research)

Heading Into an IWC Financial Crisis

The other reason for less confrontation is that the IWC has been facing a serious financial crisis, as will be explained later. Unless some measures could be agreed upon at IWC68, the organization would be financially bankrupt in a few years. 

It is fair to say that the 68th session could not afford to spend much time on the contentious debate over whaling. In fact, much of the time of the 68th meeting was devoted to the discussion of this financial issue.

Why Japan Continues as an Observer

Before reviewing the results of the 68th session, there is something that needs to be mentioned. That is the background of Japan’s participation as an observer.

Japan withdrew from the IWC on June 30, 2019, and resumed commercial whaling in its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. Some may wonder why Japan continues to remain an observer in the IWC. 

To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the policy objectives of Japan at the IWC.

The prevailing understanding could be that the resumption of commercial whaling is Japan’s one and only policy goal. Based on this understanding, now that Japan has withdrawn from the IWC and resumed commercial whaling, it makes little sense for Japan to remain an observer in the IWC. 

However, the resumption of commercial whaling is not Japan’s only policy goal at the IWC. Another policy goal is to uphold and promote the principle of sustainable use. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly 40 member nations, including Japan, called themselves supporters of sustainable use at the IWC. 

Animal rights activists often use large animal models to demonstrate their charisma. (© Institute of Cetacean Research)

Special Animals versus Sustainable Use at IWC68

Adherence to the principle of sustainable use is a policy goal of equal importance to Japan as the resumption of commercial whaling. This policy goal will not be achieved by Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC.

Why is it that our policy goal at the IWC is to uphold the sustainable use principle? 

Anti-whaling nations and NGOs take the position that whales are special animals and that no whaling should be allowed. Not even for species such as minke whales, whose abundance has been scientifically proven even by the IWC Scientific Committee

This is contrary to the principle of sustainable use, which is widely supported by the international community, including the United Nations. If this anti-sustainable use principle were limited to whales, the impact would still be limited to whaling nations. But in fact, this anti-sustainable use movement is not limited to whales.

Values Gap and ‘Environmental Colonialism’

Mainly in developed Western countries, there is a strong perception that so-called charismatic animals (charismatic megafauna) such as elephants, sharks, and whales should be completely protected. This approach calls for banning their capture altogether, even if their populations are abundant and a certain amount of sustainable use is scientifically possible. It is similar to the idea of protecting pristine nature and tends to be positioned as an environmental protection issue. 

The charisma of megafauna gives a boost to animal rights activists. (© Institute of Cetacean Research)

However, the charismatic animal protection argument, which ignores the principle of sustainable use, is not an environmental protection issue. It is the imposition of certain values on others in the name of environmental protection.

For people living affluent lives in developed countries, lions and elephants are strong, beautiful animals that embody a longing for nature. However, to the inhabitants of Africa’s natural environment, lions are ferocious and dangerous. They are capable of taking human lives. 

In southern African countries with large elephant populations, elephants are animals that destroy crops. This is why the demand by environmentalists in developed countries to protect charismatic animals, sometimes even at the cost of restricting the lives of local inhabitants, is called environmental colonialism or environmental imperialism.

Sustainable Use as a Principle at IWC68

The conceptual structure of the conflict at the IWC has a great deal in common with this issue. The anti-whaling forces, who feel that whales are special animals, also do not approve the sustainable use of abundant whale species such as minke whales. 

Whaling nations and countries that support sustainable use feel that they are being forced to accept claims that have no scientific basis. 

Therefore, there is a strong concern over a trend appearing such that tolerates certain values and ethics denying other values, particularly by bending the principle of sustainable use. Should that happen, it would have a negative impact on other issues related to the principle of sustainable use. 

Japan’s observer participation in the IWC is a way to continue to address the symbolic issue of whaling in this sustainable use principle. Maintaining and strengthening cooperation with other pro-sustainable use countries in the IWC also leads to cooperation in other international organizations. 

Disappearing from the IWC just because commercial whaling could resume, would be self-centered and selfish of Japan. Moreover, it would undermine trust in Japan in other international organizations. No one will take kindly to a country that thinks only of itself when it is asked by another country to cooperate.

Continues in Part 2: IWC68: An International Whaling Commission in Crisis


This article is published in cooperation with the Institute of Cetacean Research in Japan. Let us hear your thoughts in our comments section.

Author: Joji Morishita, PhD

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