UN Court Orders Japan to End Scientific Whale Hunt

Japan was ordered to halt its whaling program because the hunt can not be justified for scientific research purposes, in a court ruling that marks the biggest boost to efforts to protect whales since a 1986 global moratorium on commercial harvests.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague said Japan’s open-ended program that allows for the killing of about 1,000 whales a year in the Southern Ocean must cease. Japan should not restart whaling unless it can prove the hunt is for scientific purposes and can’t be done by non-lethal means, it said in delivering the ruling yesterday. In its suit against Japan, Australia said the research was a “ruse” to skirt the prohibition against commercial killing.

The court said Japan’s current research program, known as JARPA II, “can broadly be characterized as scientific research, though the evidence does not establish that the program’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives. The Court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not for purposes of scientific research.”

Japan is “disappointed” and will “abide by the judgment of the court as a state that places great importance on the international legal order,” Koji Tsuruoka, a Foreign Ministry official who is the government’s representative in the case, said in an e-mailed statement. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a separate statement that Japan would consider how to proceed after examining the verdict.

Japan’s Loophole

While the decision ends JARPA II, it doesn’t automatically mean Japan will cease all whaling, said Don Rothwell, a professor and head of school at the Australian National University’s College of Law in Canberra. With the whaling season ended, Japan may decide to present a new program to the International Whaling Commission when it meets in September that conforms to the court’s interpretation of Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, he said.

“The court has not struck out Article VIII of the whaling convention, it’s just provided some guidance as to how it can be interpreted,” Rothwell said today. “There would be nothing stopping Japan undertaking a new whaling program that doesn’t have the objectionable parameters of JARPA II but conforms to the broad parameters of the court judgment.”

Japan has been the most active of the traditional whaling nations to use the scientific research provision of the international treaty on whaling to continue killing the marine mammals and retain a market for their meat. Japan has taken more than 13,000 whales since the start of the moratorium, saying its research can only be conducted by lethal means.

Australia’s Stance

“It was no coincidence that Japan only started to issue special permits authorizing large-scale so-called ‘scientific whaling’ immediately after the moratorium on whaling for commercial purposes came into effect,” Australia said in its complaint. The permits “were but a ruse to enable the continuation of whaling by Japan.”

“It’s now up to Japan to appropriately reflect on the judgment,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is conducting an official visit to the Asian country next week, told reporters in Perth today. “I very much appreciate the desire of Australian people generally to see an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean.” The nations’ strong relationship won’t be affected, he said.

Japan killed almost 95 percent of the 14,410 whales hunted for research since the moratorium, Australia said in its suit. In the 34 years prior to the moratorium taking effect, a total of 2,100 whales were killed for research, it said.

‘Legitimate Right’

“The research take of whales is not a violation or an abuse of a loophole in the international convention,” Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a post on its website before the decision. “Quite the contrary, this is a legitimate right of the contracting party” under the convention.

In January, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy criticized the killing of bottlenose dolphins by Japan in an annual hunt off the coastal town of Taiji. “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive-hunt dolphin killing,” Kennedy said in a post on Twitter on Jan. 18, referring to the method by which the animals are herded into a cove before being killed.

For some Japanese, consuming whale meat is part of their culture and no different from eating beef or pork.

“I can’t accept this verdict,” Yutaka Sunaga, who runs the Kujiraya Taiju whale meat restaurant in Chiba, near Tokyo, said by phone. “However you look at it, it’s unreasonable to say we can’t catch them. If you say you feel sorry for the whales, it’s the same when you eat other types of animals.”

Factory Ships

With the advent of modern whaling techniques, such as explosive-tipped harpoons and factory ships, whaling nations were still killing tens of thousands of the animals a year in the mid-20th century, pushing many species near extinction. Despite the moratorium, some species have struggled to recover. Unlike fish that can lay hundreds of eggs, whales are mammals that tend to birth a single calf every two to four years, with gestation periods lasting as long as 18 months.

Growing public awareness of the killing of whales helped fuel the modern environmental movement, with groups such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society gaining international recognition. The campaign to “Save the Whales” led to calls for a ban on whaling that gave rise to the passage of the moratorium by a majority of the nations of the International Whaling Commission in 1982 that was implemented four years later.

Subsidizing Hunt

Conservation groups say that Japan has championed scientific whaling to keep its industry alive and maintain a culture of eating whale meat until it can work with other nations to weaken or overturn the moratorium. Greenpeace estimates the Japanese government spends about 6 billion yen ($58 million) annually on its catch, recovering about 5 billion yen from the sale of meat. Falling demand in Japan has left the government with stockpiles of frozen meat, while still spending about $10 million a year above what it recovers to subsidize the hunt.

“We are pleased that the ICJ clearly concluded the hunt cannot be justified for scientific research purposes as we have been insisting,” Greenpeace Japan’s Tokyo-based Executive Director Junichi Sato said by phone. “The Japanese government should stop the whale hunt near Antarctica and not seek any loopholes.”

Japan says it “strongly supports” the international protection of endangered whale species such as the blue whale, while criticizing the moratorium for also covering more abundant species that may not have been threatened, such as the minke whales it hunts in waters near Antarctica.

While the court didn’t say how many whales could be taken for scientific research, it did comment on “the disconnect between the number of whales that were taken and the objectives of the research program,” the ANU’s Rothwell said. That may discourage Japan from relaunching a smaller whaling program as its economies of scale may not be viable, he said.

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