By resuming commercial whaling Japan is putting our planet at risk

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By resuming commercial whaling Japan is putting our planet at risk

KAMCHATKA TERRITORY, RUSSIA - JULY 11, 2018: Humpback whales in Avacha Bay off Kamchatka Peninsula on Russia's Pacific coast. Yuri Smityuk/TASS

The ban on commercial whaling is one of the biggest achievements of modern conservation (Photo: Yuri Smityuk/TASS)

The decision by the Japanese government to withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC – the international body that regulates whale hunting) in order to officially resume commercial whaling is not a surprise, but it is a very sad and worrying one.

It was no doubt triggered by Japan’s attempt to bring down the commercial whaling ban at the September meeting of the IWC. Just a few weeks later their continued trade in endangered sei whales was found to be illegal by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Nevertheless, this is devastating news for the whales and, in many ways for the planet. The moratorium, or ban on commercial whaling is one of the biggest achievements of modern conservation.

Introduced in 1982 after it became apparent that the numbers of whales being killed by various nations were unsustainable and jeopardised whale populations, the ban offered hope for their recovery.

Japan went on to utilise a loophole in the regulations and has continued to hunt whales for what it called research purposes, despite the fact that most of the meat from these hunts ends up on commercial sale and that little scientific value comes from them.

This latest announcement by the Japanese government that it will resume commercial whaling in Japan’s territorial waters throws the whole moratorium into doubt. Will other nations follow, will the agreement hold?

What is certain is that by resuming whaling outside of the IWC’s oversight, Japan sets a dangerous example.

Many whale species are still struggling to recover from the effects of the mass slaughter that was industrial whaling in the 20th century.

All whale populations are already under threat from issues like climate change, pollution, entanglement and habitat degradation. The last thing they need is a resumption of large scale whaling.

Whales play a vital role in the marine ecosystem where they help provide up to 50 per cent of our oxygen, combat climate change and sustain fish stocks.

With this move Japan might destroy all the progress that has been made internationally to protect and conserve the great whale species.

It is not clear yet which species Japanese whalers will target and how many whales they will be killing each year. But it is clear that humans have inflicted enormous damage to the planet including culling millions of whales and wiping out up to 90 per cent of some populations.

Yet few people, let alone governments, are aware that recovering whale populations can help fight the damage we cause.

Whales play a vital role in the marine ecosystem where they help provide up to 50 per cent of our oxygen, combat climate change and sustain fish stocks.

They also recycle and move nutrients to surface waters where they act as the oceans’ gardeners, fertilising the phytoplankton on which our planet depends – a good enough reason not to slaughter them for profit. Whaling is also cruel (firing an explosive grenade into a whale on a moving vessel at sea is never an exact science).

But, ultimately, like us, whales and dolphins are intelligent beings, capable of feeling joy and suffering pain.

Like us, they live in complex social groups, pass on culture through generations, engage in play and even grieve the loss of family and friends.

Understanding and appreciating this social complexity is essential to ensure that whale and dolphin populations not only survive, but thrive.

When you hear the kind of news like that coming out of Japan today, you do sometimes wonder if whales are more intelligent than humans.

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