Photograph by Brian J. Skerry, Nat Geo Image Collection
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For years, Japan has killed about a hundred sei whales annually, claiming the hunts are for scientific research. Earlier this year, Japan announced that it had abandoned its sei whale hunts on the high seas.

Photograph by Brian J. Skerry, Nat Geo Image Collection

Why Japan stopped some of its controversial whale hunts

The global wildlife trade treaty is being put to the test in Japan and other countries.

It was October of 2018, and if Japan didn’t stop slaughtering sei whales plying the waters of the North Pacific and come into compliance with the international treaty that regulates the global wildlife trade, it was going to get punished.

The implicit threat, made at a meeting in Sochi, Russia, by the elected panel that handles wildlife trade enforcement matters for the 183 members of the Convention on the International Treaty for Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), was drastic: Failure to comply, the panel said—couched in the formal language of treaty communications—could shut Japan out of the lucrative, legal wildlife trade. (Learn more: CITES, explained.)

If that happened, the other 182 parties to the treaty would no longer recognize any of Japan’s export paperwork as valid, preventing it from participating in the market for the tens of thousands of species managed by CITES. This is the most drastic penalty in CITES’s arsenal.

At present, 27 countries have CITES sanctions against them—either bans on trade in all listed species or bans on trade in specific animals or plants. Japan, if sanctioned, would be the 28th.

Every three years, CITES hosts a major meeting of all its members. The 2019 meeting begins tomorrow in Geneva, Switzerland, and will wrap up on August 28 after members consider such pressing matters as how to protect amphibians and reptiles that are popular in the exotic pet trade, the future for ivory sales, and trade in African elephants. Discussion about Japan’s sei whale compliance is on the CITES agenda.

Sei whales are one of the fastest of their kind, reaching speeds of more than 30 miles an hour. They can live up to 70 years. They’re also endangered, and as such, any international commercial sale of them is banned under CITES. Killing sei whales for scientific research, however, doesn’t contravene CITES.

“CITES regulates trade—it does not regulate why, or even how many animals can be included in a lethal harvest,” says Erica Lyman, an international wildlife law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. “CITES only cares about the use of the specimens, not why they are killed.”

Japan had long claimed that its killing of about a hundred sei whales a year was done in the name of science and that the leftover whale meat was sold to fund academic work. But the CITES Standing Committee, the panel tasked with overseeing compliance issues, among other things, reached a different conclusion. It said Japan was primarily selling its sei whale meat commercially and that it must stop.

The threat worked. By early 2019, after years of complaints from animal welfare groups and CITES members, Japan says it has stopped its high seas sei whale hunts and will no longer issue CITES-required permits to bring the meat into Japan, so it can comply with the treaty.

“I think the system works”

The machinations around Japan’s sei whale hunts reveal much about CITES. “The objective for sure is to resolve issues in a non-adversarial way and raise issues with a party first,” says John Scanlon, who served as CITES’s secretary general from 2010 to 2018. But, “then there are various steps you take in terms of trying to move a party towards compliance.” The most extreme measure is sanctions.

“I think the system that is in place works,” says Ivonne Higuero, the current secretary-general. “I think for many, many years [CITES] has been known as a convention with carrots and sticks. First, we try with carrots to make changes to help parties build capacity if necessary. The last recourse is this discussion about possible threats.”

When the CITES treaty was first enacted, in 1975, its drafters didn’t include any provision for punishment for noncompliance. After all, treaties are voluntary, and a country can walk away at any time—indeed, the United States announced in 2017 that it will withdraw from the Paris climate treaty.

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Twenty-seven countries are now subject to wildlife trade sanctions for non-compliance with CITES. Guinea, for example, has been blocked from commercial trade of the thousands of species listed under the treaty since 2013—largely because of its illegal trade in protected great apes such as the chimpanzee, seen here in Senegal.

Late last year, Japan pulled out of the International Whaling Commission, the body charged with setting catch limits by species and locations with the goal of conserving the world’s whales. Japan is now openly taking minke whales in its coastal waters for commercial sales—which the commission would not have allowed—and then selling whale products domestically.­ (It can’t sell them internationally because those sales would be banned under CITES, but the treaty doesn’t apply to sales of species taken from local waters.)

Regardless of its participation in the International Whaling Commission, Japan is forbidden from hunting sei whales where many are found—in the North Pacific, far from Japan’s shores. That’s because any commercial fishing of a protected species 200 miles or more from a country’s coast is regulated under CITES, even if a country plans to sell it domestically, explains Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Japan has set a sei whale hunt quota of 25 through July 2020, saying it will catch them all within its coastal waters.

Japan is in compliance with CITES, Kazuya Fukaya, assistant director in the resources and environment research division of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, wrote in an email. (The agency handles Japan’s marine CITES issues.)

CITES sanctions

During the past few decades, sanctions under CITES have been used “more than a hundred times,” even though that penalty wasn’t officially codified as part of the treaty until 2007, says Scanlon, who now serves as special envoy for African Parks, a conservation nonprofit that manages national parks and protected areas throughout Africa.

Sanctions may involve prohibiting a country from trading a specific species. Or in the most extreme cases, such as Japan’s sei whale non-compliance, shipments of all CITES listed species could be banned—even ones intended for scientific research or museum use rather than just commercial sales. Typically, he says, countries faced with sanctions come into compliance within a year.

But not always. In the mid-1980s, after reports had been trickling it that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was flouting CITES and continuing to trade in illegal ivory, rhino horn, and snake skins, among other products, CITES imposed a total trade ban. The UAE then withdrew from the treaty, effective 1988.

The UAE rejoined CITES in 1990, and the ban was lifted. CITES imposed another total trade suspension in 2001, when the UAE again was found not to be in compliance. (The sanctions were lifted a year later, after inspections established that the UAE was enforcing the treaty once again.)

Because any CITES compliance decision doesn’t require consensus but instead either a two-thirds majority of the members or a majority vote from the Standing Committee, any decision may make some countries unhappy, Scanlon says. Within 90 days of a CITES vote, if any members are dissatisfied with the decision—say, countries selling and buying ivory want to continue that trade despite a ban—both can enter what are called formal “reservations” about the decision. That allows them to continue their specific trade and remain in good standing under the treaty.

That exact situation was one that some conservationists worried about at the last triennial CITES meeting, in South Africa. A proposal had been submitted to include all African elephants under the strictest level of protection, effectively preventing any African elephant ivory trade whatsoever. (The proposal did not pass.)

But as the CITES Secretariat explained, it if had passed, and countries had objected, “A party entering a reservation against the inclusion of all African elephant populations in Appendix I [which would bar commercial trade] could commercially trade in African elephant ivory to any other party that also entered such a reservation, and do so without violating the provisions of the Convention.”

A similar African elephant proposal will be discussed at the Geneva meeting, with a deciding vote on August 28. (Wildlife Watch will report the outcome here.)

Thailand: Shutting down the ivory trade

Conservation groups often point to Thailand for a CITES trade suspension success story. In 2013, CITES members threatened sanctions against Thailand, saying that unless the country shut down its domestic trade in illegal elephant ivory, it would face sanctions across all CITES-listed species. This, Thailand knew, would be a huge blow since it would prevent the export of CITES-listed orchid species—a trade that brought in tens of millions of dollars a year for Thai vendors. Until then, Thai law had allowed ivory from elephants in the country to be sold legally, which, conservationists argued, allowed African ivory to be laundered through its shops.

The sanctions threat worked: To remain in good standing with CITES and continue its valuable trade in orchids, Thailand came up with a national ivory plan, changed its laws to protect its elephants, and created strict penalties for any illegal domestic trade of ivory. The wildlife monitoring group Traffic reported a 96 percent drop in open ivory sales in Bangkok between 2014 and 2016.

"Trade sanctions give CITES its teeth. No process is perfect, but without the ability to recommend sanctions, CITES would be no more than a paper tiger,” says Rosalind Reeve, an environmental lawyer who advises on CITES for the Fondation Franz Weber—an animal welfare group based in Bern, Switzerland, that advocates for a global ban on the ivory trade, among other issues.

Some of the 27 countries now sanctioned are penalized because they failed to write their own national legislation to implement and enforce the treaty. Others may be in trouble for a variety of longstanding problems. Guinea, for example, was sanctioned in 2013 for showing no evidence that it was attempting to control its illegal trade in great apes, along with having problems with permitting and making false claims about captive-bred animals. Six years later the embargo, which covers all commercial trade, still stands. Often, poorer countries may get penalized because they don’t have the resources to comply, or the political will, or are hobbled by problems such as government corruption, says the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Susan Lieberman.

Afghanistan has had sanctions covering all commercial and non-commercial trade in place since 2013 for its failure to provide CITES with the required annual reports. Lieberman’s group is working with the government of Afghanistan to improve its regulations, implement CITES, and control illegal trade.

Peter Sand, who served as the first secretary-general of CITES, from 1978 to 1981, says he generally considers the sei whale story an example of the system working well.

“My reservation is that it took so long,” he says. Although the matter was brought to the attention of CITES members more than a decade ago, he notes that it took until 2018 for Japan to officially face the threat of an embargo. Still, he says, “the sei whale case is exceptional because it really targeted a country that was powerful.” That a country such as Japan “had submitted to the CITES procedure is what one can consider a success.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.