This week, Japan submitted a proposal to the International Whaling Commission suggesting an end to the commercial ban on whaling, established back in 1986. Japan's argument is that certain species of whales can be hunted sustainably because their populations are sufficiently healthy.
Wait ... isn't Japan already hunting whales?
The whaling ban has some exceptions. It allows killing whales for scientific research, and it is this provision that Japan uses to justify killing 333 whales each year. However, many critics of Japan argue that they are not actually killing the whales for research purposes, since the whale meat from those kills is sold commercially.
What Japan wants is to change international rules so it can legally kill whales for meat. Part of the country's proposal is to establish a committee for sustainable whaling. If the ban on commercial whaling were lifted, the IWC would establish a limit of how many whales of each species could be legally caught each year.
Is it possible to hunt whales sustainably?
Back in 2016, Glenn Inwood, Japan's representative at the IWC, was interviewed by DW and asked to explain how whaling can be sustainable.
"The IWC already has robust population data on whale stocks," Inwood said. "For example, the Antarctic minke whale population, which is a target species for Japan, is shown to be around half a million to a million in the Southern Ocean alone. And I think all [whaling] commission members admit that this is an abundant species. The way to do it is to have control measures in place so that the international community can feel confident that catches are being recorded effectively, and that the hunt remains sustainable."
What does science say?
Geneviève Desportes, the secretary of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, told BBC in 2015 that from a conservation perspective, there is nothing wrong with Iceland hunting North Atlantic fin whales. Although fin whales as a species are classified as endangered, the North Atlantic population is considered healthy.
"It has no consequences," Desportes said of hunting fin whales around Iceland. "It's sustainable in the longer term."
However, there are some doubts about whether Japan is making accurate assertions about the population numbers of certain species. According to Greenpeace, the IWC scientific committee refuted Japan's claim that populations of humpback whales and fin whales are growing by 14 to 16 percent.
Some people argue that even though it may be theoretically possible to hunt whales sustainably, to believe that Japan would follow such guidelines is foolish. Greenpeace points out that back in 2006, investigations found that Japan had been illegally overfishing southern bluefin tuna. Limits were in place to determine how much tuna could be sustainably harvested, but Japan took much more than allowed.
What will happen?
Japan's proposal has strong opposition — from the United States, Australia and Brazil, among other countries. It is unclear when and whether the IWC will vote on the proposal. It is possible that Japan will pull back the proposal in anticipation that it will not pass.