The announcement makes the country one of a select few globally that still authorize the practice.

By Marisa Spyker
Rebecca Yale/Getty Images

For the first time in more than 30 years, hunting whales for profit will once again be legal in Japanese waters. Government officials recently announced they were withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, a global agreement which put a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The move will make the practice of commercial whaling legal again when the hunting season kicks off in July.

By rejecting the moratorium, Japan joins just two other countries worldwide—Iceland and Norway—which continue to hunt whales commercially. Officials reasoned that whaling is an important industry in Japan, though government data shows Japanese people eat very little whale meat compared with previous decades.

Though commercial whaling has been banned in the country for three decades, the practice of whaling has continued thanks to loopholes that allow whaling for scientific purposes. Under this agreement, Japan has been permitted to hunt whales in international waters, including the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in Antarctica.

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The country’s motives for whaling, however, have often been called into question, with the International Court of Justice ruling in 2014 that very little of Japan’s whaling program was for scientific benefit. In recent years, especially, they’ve struggled with opposition from conservation groups like Sea Shepherd, which has actively intervened to prevent whalers from accessing protected waters.

While most critics of Japan’s whaling practices denounce the return to commercial whaling, Sea Shepherd sees it as a small win: Without the veil of whaling for scientific purposes, Japanese whalers are no longer permitted to hunt in international waters, making the entire Southern Hemisphere a true safe haven for whales of all breeds.

"Sea Shepherd’s objective of ending the slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary has been realized," the organization said in a press release. "This is a victory for the campaign to make the Southern Ocean a whaling free zone."