“The whales have won” – even as Japan sharpens its harpoons

It might seem odd to see a glimmer of hope for conservation of the world’s whales, at the very time Japan has announced it will unilaterally withdraw from global whaling regulations and kick-start commercial hunts in its territorial waters.

Australia has branded the move “extremely disappointing”. But maybe, just maybe, this whole sorry episode, combined with long-standing economic and diplomatic pressures, could actually serve as a face-saving way for Japan to eventually stop whaling altogether, even if the cost is (again) to the country’s wider credibility in promoting respect for rules in international diplomacy.

More on that hope for the whales – and the diplomatic cost to Japan – in a moment.

For now, Japan has declared that after this year it will no longer kill whales in waters surrounding Antarctica, home to the most endangered species. This is a momentous end to what was a senseless and self-defeating practice, and the insistance on hunting in international waters was a big part of the reason Japan attracted such reproach, compared to other whaling nations, Norway and Iceland. As Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson declared, the announcement by Tokyo really does mean “the whale wars in the Southern Ocean are over. The whales have won”. That alone is worth celebrating.

At least for now. Despite Japan’s stated intention not to harvest whales in Antarctica, there is a debate in official circles in Australia about whether Japan’s withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission would actually serve as an impediment to stop it from dispatching the hunters south again, should it so choose.

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