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Time for the US to step up on whaling

Kitty Block, Vice President of Humane Society International has contributed to a piece in asking for the United States to give serious consideration to stepping up its game against commercial whaling ‘through a more aggressive foreign policy approach’.

WDC supports this call, but also wonders if the US can do this without actually taking a long hard look at its behind the scenes diplomacy on the issue of whaling. Whilst the US appears to say all the right things in public, its record of covert diplomatic interventions has left a lot to be desired.

As the US has chastised the whaling interests with one hand, for example, by joining 34 other nations in the recent formal diplomatic protest against Icelandic whaling, however, it appears to have been presenting another face in the recent past.

The release of classified US cables and documents in 2011[1] demonstrated that the United States had been actively seeking such a ‘compromise’ with Japan to end high seas pelagic whaling but at the same time, legalizing Japan’s coastal whaling. The cable note that,

‘…the Governments of Japan and the United States would work towards reaching an understanding regarding a way forward for the International Whaling Commission that would include …U.S. support for international approval of sustainable small-type coastal whaling activities off the coast of Japan’.

What was not clear from the 2011 cable is how long the US had been signalling Japan that such a compromise was acceptable to US interests?

However, a review of WDC records shows that this approach is, unfortunately, nothing new. According to one rather simplified analysis, the rather two-faced stance of the US Administration arises out of an attempt to balance both the domestic necessity of looking after its own Native American (Inupiat) whalers in Alaska, whose hunts need to be approved by the IWC every five years, with the overwhelming American public attitude to oppose commercial whaling in all its guises.

However, there are other pressures on the US, and these other dominant foreign relations issues may well overcome its desire to see an end to whaling. The US is concerned about political stability in Asia; its relationship with a resurgent China; an ever-threatening North Korea, and the ancient dynamics of this volatile region.  

Watching the voting patterns of the various Whaling Commission Parties, an observer new to IWC would think that the world is equally split between the pro-conservation lobby and those that who are adamantly, and often vocally, committed to the support of commercial whaling (Japan has repeatedly been accused of recruiting new members to support its position[2]) This polarity is often used to accuse the IWC of ether being dysfunctional or in need to compromise to be able to move forward.[3]

Many new observers often believe that some form of diplomatic compromise proposal is necessary to advance the IWC through this perceived stalemate. In the last twenty years we have seen several attempts, including the Irish proposal’ of 1997[4] that set out to create global whale sanctuary but would have allowed whaling within 200 miles of land (the exclusive economic zone), and more recent attempts that all sought to trade an end to Japanese pelagic whaling for legalised coastal whaling.

All these initiatives appear, on first inspection, to have been initiated by ‘moderate’ pro-conservation interests, but one must ask the question of who benefits from these repeated attempts to reach out to Japan? The US position in all this is especially important, as Japan has often taken its cue from the US position with respect to whaling.

Indeed, some authors believe that in the early 1980s Japan contemplated giving up whaling with major splits in the Fisheries Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s office over the adoption of the Moratorium by the IWC. Whilst practical politics may have been leading Japan towards fully abandoning whaling, it was the offer of a deal from the US that actually lead to Japan withdrawing their objection to the moratorium opening up the door for so-called ‘scientific whaling’. (Morikawa, 2009)[5]. The US agreement to allow Japan two years to phase out its commercial whaling allowed the pro-whaling forces within Japan’s Ministry of Fisheries the time to overcome concerns in other departments and to launch their programme of so-called ‘research’ whaling[6].

Whilst Morikawa suggests that the US may have failed to ‘accurately estimate Japan’s intentions’, Satake reveals that the Japanese negotiators were reading the ‘diplomatic hints and signals from Washington’, and were quick to take advantage of the ‘new Cold War’ of the early 1980s to achieve US acquiescence and concessions.

I would argue that these US concessions were effectively a green light to ‘the pro-whaling, die-hard faction in Japan’[7] signalling that that the US was not going to stand in Japan’s way to resumed commercial whaling. 

Whilst the US has sought to keep much of their bilateral negotiations within normal diplomatic processes there have been a number of occasions when the US position has reached the public. The US position was further telegraphed to the whaling interests in 1993 when Al Gore, then Vice President of the United States, negotiated a deal with Norway that ‘allowed’ Norway to launch commercial whaling in 1993. The Norwegian Government had been lobbying the Bush administration for a sympathetic response with respect to whaling, but this has fallen on deaf ears. Under the new Clinton Administration, Gro Harland Brundtland, the then Prime Minister of Norway, found an old Harvard colleague in Vice-President Gore who was willing to listen and indeed, was willing to trade off whales for US interests[8].

Around these discussions with the US, Norway announced that it would resume commercial whaling in objection to the IWC moratorium; a programme of hunts that has culminated in some 729 whales being killed in 2014[9] despite decreasing sales of whale meat within Norway[10].

Today, Japan sees the US ‘pivot to the east’ as providing it with an opportunity to exploit the continuing US ‘soft’ line on whaling.

What is remarkable is that in reality the US has the choice and chance to exploit Japan’s need for regional security to end the whaling question once and for all.

Japan’s willingness to elevate the self-interest of its minority whaling industrial complex to the same level as its regional security may be more ‘puff’ than reality (especially at a time of heightened tensions between Japan and China over the ‘Senkaku Islands’) and maybe should be tested by the US and others for the bluff it may well be. As the Japanese Diplomatic Blue Book[11] states,

‘…the importance of strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance as a diplomatic linchpin for the purpose of ensuring the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region continues to heighten and it is from this perspective that Japan welcomes the United States’ rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific. It is crucial that Japan and the U.S. work together to allow rules rather than force to govern the region.’

Whilst WDC welcomes the US certifying Iceland, its past history in seeing through the threat of such action did not, historically at least, really have the whalers worried. The fact that the US recently refused to invite Iceland to a major oceans conference was the first truly painful act that seems to have rattled the Icelandic government in a long time, but this tactic has been used before, for example, in the year 2000, with Japan, and yet Japan still pressed on with its so-called ‘scientific whaling’ on the high seas and the slaughter of tens of thousands of dolphins around its coast.

In many of the myths about Janus the mythical two-faced god, it is recorded that he presided over the beginning and ending of conflict. Whilst the US’ past actions may have helped the continuation of the current whaling debate, maybe it’s time for the US to help bring this one conflict to an end once and for all, – and help end commercial whaling in all its forms, both pelagic and coastal.

Links and further information

[1] Release of US embassy cables: US presses Japan to transform International Whaling Commission Available at:

[2] See Brown, P. (1999). ‘Japan Admits Using Aid to Build Pro-Whaling Vote.’ Guardian (November 11) Available at:

[3] The Guardian newspaper, ‘Japan hits out at ‘polarised’ whaling council’ Available at:

[4] On 9 September 1997, the Irish Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Dublin, issued a press release entitled, “Ireland To Lead Call For Global Sanctuary For Whales”. The Minister stated that Ireland’s intention was to “seek a solution which will stop the escalation of whaling and bring whaling under the control of the IWC”. The early proposal identified the following elements:

• A global sanctuary outside of nation’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs);

• A ban on international trade;

• A ‘phase out’ of current scientific whaling;

• Coastal whaling to be allowed under the Revised Management Scheme (RMS) for domestic consumption; and;

• Development of IWC regulations for whale watching to minimize the impacts of disturbance on cetaceans.

[5] Morikawa, J. (2009) Whaling in Japan, Power, Politics and Diplomacy, Hurst and Company, London pages 49-51

[6] Satake, G., (1997) The Japanese Fishing Industry and Overseas Fishing Cooperation in the Age of Internationalization, quoted in Morikawa, J. (2009)

[7] Ibid 5


[10] The Independent (2014) ‘Norway kills 729 whales in record year for hunt but demand failing for meat’, Available at:

[11] Japan’s Diplomatic Blue Book (2013), ‘Japan’s Foreign Policy by Region’, page 11. Available at: