Japan announced Wednesday it is leaving the International Whaling Commission to resume hunting the animals for commercial use but said it will no longer go to the Antarctic for its much-criticized annual killings of hundreds of whales.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the hunts will be limited to Japan's territorial waters and its 200-mile exclusive economic zone along the country's coasts, and that Japan will stop its annual whaling expeditions to the Antarctic and northwest Pacific oceans.
Japan will resume commercial whaling in July 2019 after a 30-year absence "in line with Japan's basic policy of promoting sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence," he said.
"Regrettably, we have reached a decision that it is impossible in the IWC to seek the coexistence of states with different views," Suga said.
Suga said the IWC has been dominated by conservationists and Japan was disappointed over its efforts to manage whale stocks even though the IWC has a treaty mandate for both whale conservation and development of the whaling industry.
The IWC imposed a commercial moratorium in the 1980s due to a dwindling whale population. Japan switched to what it calls research whaling and says stocks have recovered enough to resume commercial hunt. The research program was criticized as a cover for commercial hunting as the meat is sold on the market at home.
Environmental group Greenpeace condemned the decision and disputed Japan's view that whale stocks have recovered, noting also that ocean life is being threatened by pollution as well as overfishing.
"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. The government of Japan must urgently act to conserve marine ecosystems, rather than resume commercial whaling," Sam Annesley, executive director at Greenpeace Japan, said in a statement.
The Australian government, often a vocal critic of Japan's whaling policies, said in a statement that it was "extremely disappointed" with Japan's decision to quit the commission.
However, Australia and New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters welcomed Japan's withdrawal from the southern ocean.
Japan has hunted whales for centuries, but has reduced its catch following international protests and declining demand for whale meat at home. The withdrawal from the IWC may be a face-saving step to stop Japan's ambitious Antarctic hunts and scale down the scope of whaling to around the Japanese coasts.
Fisheries officials have said Japan annually consumes thousands of tons of whale meat from the research hunts, mainly by older Japanese seeking a nostalgic meal. But critics say they doubt commercial whaling could be a sustainable industry if Japanese young people don't see whales as food.
Suga said Japan will notify the IWC of its decision by Dec. 31 and remains committed to international cooperation on proper management of marine living resources even after its IWC withdrawal.