CITES Censures Japan For Illegally Trading Whale Products From Its Controversial “Scientific” Whaling Program

Photo by World Wildlife Fund

Conservation organizations recently welcomed the news that Japan’s import and sale of Sei Whale products from its controversial “scientific” whaling “program” in the North Pacific has been censured as illegal by the global body entrusted with protecting endangered species from trade.

Sei whales are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means that international commercial trade in their products is banned. Japan mostly hunts sei whales on the high seas beyond its national jurisdiction; under CITES rules, bringing these products into Japan is considered international trade—referred to under the treaty as an “introduction from the sea.” Each year, Japan hunts as many as 134 sei whales—the third largest animal on the planet—as part of its “scientific” whaling program in the North Pacific.

During the 70th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Sochi, Russia, committee members nearly unanimously concluded that Japan was acting in violation of the convention by landing thousands of tons of sei whale meat for primarily commercial purposes. The committee then agreed that Japan must take immediate remedial action to address this compliance issue and report on its specific actions by February 1st for consideration at the next Standing Committee meeting in May of 2019. At that time, if the committee does not accept Japan’s remediation plan, it could recommend that the other 182 governments impose trade sanctions on Japan.

“This is a significant win for sei whales and another blow by the international community against Japan’s so-called ‘scientific’ whaling,”  Matthew Collis, Director of International Policy for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in statement. “For 16 years, Japan has been importing and selling sei whale products; this is a persistent and intentional violation of CITES rules and must stop.”

“Anything less than a firm rebuke of Japan’s longstanding and large-scale commercial exploitation of sei whales under the guise of research would have had devastating consequences—not just for the protection of endangered species from commercial interests but also for the credibility of CITES,” said Sue Fisher, consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute.

For years, Japan has presented its whaling as a “scientific” endeavor in order to skirt the commercial whaling moratorium agreed to by the International Whaling Commission. But that attempted justification is irrelevant to CITES, which regulates the end use of products after they are brought to Japan. The vast majority of each sei whale is packaged purely for commercial use, amounting to thousands of tons of sei whale meat from more than 1,500 sei whales in the last 16 years. However, Japan has been using CITES certificates—which should only cover the importation of limited scientific samples—to import sei whale meat and parts for the express purpose of commercial sale throughout Japan.

“There was no question about Japan’s non-compliance. With this decision, the CITES Standing Committee put the integrity of the convention above politics,” said Erica Lyman, Professor of Clinical Law at Lewis & Clark Law School’s International Environmental Law Project.

“This decision by the CITES Standing Committee members demonstrates that international conservation efforts can work,” said Astrid Fuchs, program lead at Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Japan has for years engaged in heavy trade of an endangered species. Japan is now required to achieve permanent compliance with the treaty by stopping its importation of sei whale meat and blubber.”

“The issue of Japan’s use of meat from sei whale taken on the high seas is important, both for the whales themselves and also for the integrity of CITES,” said Mark Simmonds, senior marine scientist for Humane Society International. “Japan is a significant importer and exporter of wildlife products and it is now clear that Japan has been on the wrong side of the rules in this matter. Japan will now have to follow the instructions it has been given or face potentially serious consequences.”

CITES’ censure of the commercial nature of Japan’s North Pacific sei whale hunt follows a 2014 judgment by the International Court of Justice, which found that Japan’s Antarctic whaling was not for scientific purposes.

Last month, the International Whaling Commission determined that Japan’s lethal whaling was not scientifically justified and voted to defeat the country’s attempts to resume commercial whaling.

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