A minke whale is lifted from a 'research' whaling vessel in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in April 2008. Japan is set to resume commercial whale hunting and will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission.Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun / AFP

Japan announced on Wednesday that it will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial whaling next summer – a move that drew immediate condemnation from governments and environmental groups.

But the hunt will be geographically limited, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference, Reuters reported.

“From July 2019, after the withdrawal comes into effect on June 30, Japan will conduct commercial whaling within Japan’s territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone, and will cease the take of whales in the Antarctic Ocean and Southern Hemisphere,” Suga said in a statement.

The IWC banned commercial whaling in 1986, but Japan has been carrying out what it calls scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean, with an annual cull of 333 animals.

“The [commercial] whaling will be conducted in accordance with international law and within the catch limits calculated in accordance with the method adopted by the IWC to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources,” Suga added.

Tokyo’s decision was not unexpected. The cabinet decision on Christmas Day had been pre-announced. However, it appears to signal an end to Japan’s decades-long campaign to persuade the IWC to its point of view.

In September, the IWC voted down Japan’s bid to resume commercial whaling by 41-27.

‘Outdated and unnecessary’

In comments carried by news agencies, Australia’s Department of Environment said it was “extremely disappointed” at the Japanese decision, while New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry called commercial whaling “outdated and unnecessary.”

There are strong anti-whaling lobbies and non-government groups in both countries, given their proximity to the Southern Ocean, where Japan has been carrying out its “scientific” cull.

Prominent environmental group Greenpeace responded more strongly.

“The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures,” said Sam Annesley, executive director at Greenpeace Japan, in a statement. “The government of Japan must urgently act to conserve marine ecosystems, rather than resume commercial whaling.”

“As a result of modern fleet technology, overfishing in both Japanese coastal waters and high seas areas has led to the depletion of many whale species,” Annesley’s said. “Most whale populations have not yet been recovered, including larger whales such as blue whales, fin whales and sei whales.”

In fact, the Japanese whaling industry is tiny, employing less than 1,000 people and supporting a “fleet” of just six vessels. Whale meat reportedly makes up well under 1% of the meat consumed annually in Japan.

However, some Japanese consider whaling a traditional industry and whale meat a culinary delicacy. And on the political front, whaling constituencies are heartlands of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.