Why Should We Protect Whales From Being Killed? Whales as Nature’s Own Carbon Sinks

Hideki Tokoro plans to hunt whales on his new whaling ship, contradicting UNCLOS's obligation to protect marine ecosystems and climate change, despite Japan's scientific research background.

Why Should We Protect Whales From Being Killed? Whales as Nature’s Own Carbon Sinks
Photo Source: Humpback whales in the water. by Elianne Dipp, via Pexels, 2020/June 16th.


Pauliina Majasaari

East Asia Researcher, 

Global Human Rights Defence.


Hideki Tokoro, dressed in a toy whale hat, tie and shirt, is keen to take his company’s new whaling ship out to sea, however his intention is not to protect the whales but to hunt them. The new ‘mothership’ of whaling is much bigger and faster than the former whaling ship, allowing for travels up to 13,000 km at sea, and anti-whaling activists are predicting that Japan is aiming to set sail far beyond its northern waters, to the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, where a large part of the whale population lives and grows.


Japan has a long history of whaling within its culture, however it has been conducting it under the guise of scientific research, as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986 due to the whale population being driven almost to extinction by humans. Japan was formerly a member of the IWC, however due to failed attempts at persuading the Commission on resuming its commercial whaling activities, Japan withdrew from the IWC in June 2019, and continued with commercial whaling, despite receiving criticism from the international level. Apart from protecting whales from extinction and upholding biodiversity and a balanced marine ecosystem, scientific research has shown that these mammals play a major role in tackling climate change. Whales contribute to the functioning of the marine ecosystem by upkeeping the health of the oceans and help to provide for the oxygen we breathe, through ensuring the survival of the phytoplankton which releases about 50 percent of the oxygen into the atmosphere. The whale’s habits of feeding, pooing, migrating and diving between the surface and depths of the ocean circulate essential nutrients within the ocean. This supports healthy marine ecosystems and stimulates plant-life growth and the growth of phytoplankton, which gathers and locks vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Similarly, whales lock massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and researchers have estimated that the mass slaughter of whales within the past centuries has vastly decreased the amount of carbon being locked to the ocean and possibly accelerated the effects of climate change as a result. Therefore, the more whales are in the ocean, the more healthy the marine ecosystems are which in turns helps to combat climate change.


According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), article 192 sets out a general obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment. Furthermore, article 119 sets out an obligation upon state parties to conserve living resources at high seas, and article 120 further specifies that state parties should cooperate with pertinent international organisations and work towards the conservation of cetaceans, including whales, within the high seas. As such the actions of Japan in withdrawing itself from the IWC and the respective International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, shows Japan’s lack of willingness to cooperate with the international organisation and to work towards the conservation of the whale population. Its actions are therefore in contradiction with the above mentioned articles provided by the UNCLOS. Additionally, the killing of whales for commercial reasons goes against the general obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment, as whales hold a major role in upholding the balance of the marine ecosystem. Japan has made arguments on conducting sustainable commercial whaling and thereby keeping up the balance of the ecosystem. However, as expressed by the Senior Ocean Advisor from the Environmental Investigation Agency, the sustainable harvesting of whales is nearly impossible due to the lack of specific data on the number of whales living in the ocean. This is particularly relevant when it involves a threatened species of whale, such as the fin whales, which have been added to the list of commercial whaling species in Japan.


Consequently, Japan is urged by multiple international actors, such as anti-whaling activists and organisations and other nations on the international level to cease its commercial whaling and stop killing the much needed ‘climate giants’, whales, and thereby ensure the proper functioning of the marine ecosystem. By protecting whales from being killed, we are working towards securing our future on planet earth as whales play a major role in providing for the oxygen we breathe and capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which simultaneously helps in tackling climate change.


Sources and further readings:

‘Climate Change’ WDC <https://uk.whales.org/our-goals/create-healthy-seas/climate-change/> accessed 4 June 2024.

Heather Chen, Hanako Montgomery and Moeri Karasawa ‘Japan is determined to keep hunting whales. And now it has a brand new ‘mothership’’ CNN (3 June 2024) <https://edition.cnn.com/2024/05/30/asia/japan-whaling-mothership-kangei-maru-intl-hnk/index.html> accessed 4 June 2024.

‘Japan’s move to kill fin whales is a ‘desperate effort’ to prop up a destructive outdated industry’ EIA (9 May 2024) <https://eia-international.org/news/japans-move-to-kill-fin-whales-is-a-desperate-effort-to-prop-up-a-destructive-outdated-industry/> accessed 4 June 2024.

Lindsey Jean Shueman, ‘Whales provide a deep water solution to climate change’ One Earth (19 February 2024) <https://www.oneearth.org/whales-provide-a-deep-water-solution-to-climate-change/> accessed 4 June 2024.

Michael Liam Kedzlie, ‘Why does Japan value its whaling industry over its reputation?’ THINK.IAFOR.ORG (4 October 2014) <https://think.iafor.org/whaling-in-japan/> accessed 4 June 2024.

Sophie Yeo, ‘How whales help cool the earth’ BBC (20 January 2021) <https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210119-why-saving-whales-can-help-fight-climate-change> accessed 4 June 2024.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (adopted 10 December 1982, entered into force 16 November 1994) 1833 UNTS 397 (UNCLOS).