Whale-intentioned boycotts won’t deliver results

Snubbing exports won't save the whales

Dominic Harvey-Taylor

Economics | Asia, East Asia, Australia

16 July 2019

Protesters are calling for boycotts following Japan’s exit from the International Whaling Commission and return to commercial whaling, but there are more effective measures, Dominic Harvey-Taylor writes.

“Until now research was the main object… We can prioritise the quality now. We will process the meat so it retains its quality and do the bare minimum of research”, stated Konomu Kubo, a spokesperson for Kyodo Senpaku (Japan’s only offshore whaling company) in an interview earlier this year.

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a moratorium on commercial whaling. For some time, Japan has been able to get around the ban through ‘special permit‘ whaling, claiming that its program is principally for scientific research.

Japan has been able to sell its excess whale meat for public consumption since, ostensibly to avoid wastage from the research program under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW).

In 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that Japan’s permits were not in fact granted for purposes of scientific research pursuant to the IWCR.  In response, Japan ended its initial scientific whaling program, then started up another program which was largely similar to the first.

Ultimately at the end of 2018, Japan made a failed bid to lift the ban on commercial whaling, and decided to quit the IWC  in order to resume whaling, unimpeded by the organisation.

Japan’s return to commercial whaling has sparked a number of online petitions, with many calling for a boycott of Japan.

Some petitions advocate boycotting specific Japanese companies, others suggest a boycott of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, while others generally call for people not to travel to Japan or support any Japanese businesses whatsoever.

There are two fundamental issues to these boycott campaigns: effectiveness and engagement with real stakeholders.

‘Boycott Japan, Save the Whales’ is not a particularly new approach to the issue of commercial whaling in Japan. Similar calls have been made since the 1970s with little result in terms of both the number of whales it has saved and making a dent in Japan’s overall economic and commercial dominance.

Environmental activist and founder of the Dolphin Project Ric O’Barry recalled in blog post earlier this year how early boycotts merely resulted in many Japanese American children being bullied across schools in the US.

These boycotts rarely engage with the actual stakeholders in the whaling industry in Japan or understand how the industry is perceived domestically.

More on this: Futons are burning: Is Japan ready to amend its colonial past?

There is a small number of people working directly in the industry and while there is no doubt a cultural and historical attachment to whaling in Japan amongst some communities, the consumption of whale meat is far from being a widely accepted product across the market.

Information campaigns based upon the reality of the industry, targeted towards a domestic audience, would likely save far more whales than Australians opting to not buy Pocky for a few weeks.

Beyond the efforts of environmental activists, NGOs and the anti-whaling movement internationally, the question to ask is, what steps will the Australian government take next?

Following Japan’s departure from the IWC, there were many calls earlier in 2019 for the issue of whaling to be raised by countries at the G20 summit in Osaka.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stated that he is not going to let Australia’s relationship with Japan be defined by this issue, giving little insight into what level the issue of whaling will be pursued by the government.

This statement could be interpreted to suggest that no action will be taken, or alternatively action will be taken, but not in a way that detracts from other interests.

It should be noted that while simultaneously maintaining a ‘close relationship’ with Japan, Australia has not been shy about raising the issue of whaling in the past. The ICJ decision in 2014 came as a result of the Rudd government taking Japan to the court.

There is always the possibility that Australia could haul Japan back there again.

Now that Japan has ended its scientific programs and withdrawn from the IWC, there are new potential legal challenges to be made.

Under Article 65 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, to which Japan is a signatory, states have an obligation to ‘cooperate with a view to the conservation of marine mammals and in the case of cetaceans shall in particular work through the appropriate international organisations for their conservation, management and study.’

In situations where Japan kills whales outside its exclusive economic zone, it must engage with the right international organisations.

Another approach advocated for by former Chair of the IWC, Professor Peter Bridgewater, is for Australia to lead the charge to reform the text of the ICRW to better reflect the differing interpretations of the meaning of ‘conservation’ and deal directly with the reason why Japan withdrew from the IWC.

It remains to be seen whether Japan will be successful in revitalising the whaling industry domestically. It’s also uncertain whether Australia will once again take action on the international stage through legal action or legal reform. It is obvious however, that the relative impact a general boycott will have on Japan is insignificant.

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