[Lee Jae-min] A whale of a departure

By Lee Jae-min
  • Published : Jan 8, 2019 - 17:11
  • Updated : Jun 13, 2019 - 11:25

It was 1986 when the international community agreed on a ban on “commercial whaling.” Depleting whale stocks urged states to adopt an extraordinary measure. Except for the two states (Norway and Iceland), all whaling countries got on board. So started the ban and has been quite effective for 32 years. While controversy has persisted concerning what is “commercial whaling,” which is banned, and what is “scientific whaling,” which is not, overall the ban has successfully herded states in one direction. It has helped restore whale stocks.

The legal vehicle for this global regime is the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), and the organization in charge is the International Whaling Commission (IWC). It is ICRW that created the IWC, so the two are integrally linked. There have been ups and downs, handshakes and accusations, but the regime itself has been largely stable.

The global whaling regime suffered a major dent at the close of last year. A major whaling country, Japan, adopted on Dec. 26 a cabinet decision to withdraw from the ICRW (so, automatically from the IWC too). The withdrawal simply means Japan is now going to resume commercial whaling, freed from legal hindrance. Commercial whaling can start as early as the beginning of July 2019.

A key whaling country’s departure from the ICRW is sending waves of concern across the globe. It is one thing to have different views and battle in an international organization, but another to quit it. The immediate concern is the impact on the conservation of whale species as a result of the resumption of commercial whaling. Very possibly, it will have a negative impact, to put it mildly, on the three decades of global efforts for restoration.

What is more concerning is a possible domino effect. The “broken window” theory would equally apply here. It is feared that other countries may follow suit, or at least they may be emboldened by the precedent. They may now have to face increasing demand from their domestic industries. Among those being mentioned as weak links are Russia and Korea, once active whaling countries. Dominos will then fall and knock over other countries and so on and so forth, opening a critical loophole in the ICRW/IWC regime. Utmost care and prudence should be taken by the global community lest it happens.

Japan’s departure is major news for Korea too. Korea’s once prosperous whaling industry along the southeastern port cities has since become extinct under the 1986 moratorium, which has been implemented by municipal law (Fisheries Act and Fisheries Resources Management Act). Japan’s withdrawal and weakening the cohesiveness of the global consensus may well rekindle domestic debates on whaling, albeit cautiously. This should not be the case. Korea’s long-term interest is only to be served, be it from the fisheries perspective or national image perspective, when Korea stays firm with the consensus-based global cause. And there is a strong global consensus for whale conservation

Let’s look back at 2012. At that time, following Japan, Korea proposed to conduct scientific whaling, only to withdraw the plan amid international criticism. Let’s also remember the continuing criticism and scrutiny from the NGOs about the high rate of whale bycatch in Korea. Bycatch whales are those caught during regular fishing of other fisheries products. They are exempt from the regulation of ICRW and thus from the Korean law. Each year the number of whales reported as caught this way is around 80-100 whales, a number higher than other countries. The suspicion from NGOs is that bycatch may have been purposeful, not accidental. In the absence of hard evidence, there is no knowing the causes of each bycatch. But, in any event, the truth is, Korea is already feeling a hard stare from the international community.

So, prudence is required at this crucial juncture of the global whaling regime. To Korea, what is absolutely necessary is the full and effective enforcement of the domestic law prohibiting commercial whaling, as mandated by ICRW. The experience of 2012 still resonates.

Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at jaemin@snu.ac.kr. -- Ed.