Environmental activists like the Sea Shepherds applauded Monday’s decision by the International Court of Justice to block Japan’s whaling program being conducted in the Antarctic under the guise of scientific study after they concluded what observers have known for years: The number of whales killed was on a commercial scale beyond anything needed for research.
The 12 to 4 verdict from the court in The Hague, Netherlands was detailed and explicit in its design to revoke Japan’s permits authorized under the 1982 International Whaling Commission moratorium that allowed the culling of whales for study and scientific research.
But how safe are whales going to be after the ruling and for how long?
International law expert, Dr. Tim Stephens, from Sydney University who was instrumental in bringing the Australian case against Japan, along with New Zealand, ultimately sees the ICJ’s verdict as a “huge vindication” and says it could prompt other countries to file suits against whaling in the Northern Hemisphere.
But Stephens also admits Japan is free to redesign its whaling program.
“Indeed, that is completely open to Japan, but Japan would need to comply with the conditions that the court says, and essentially they are that if you are identifying a scientific purpose, the methods you use to go about to identify or prove that scientific objective must be reasonable,” Stephens said on Australia’s The World Today with Eleanor Hall on Tuesday.
However, wildlife biologists are more often questioning the right of mankind to kill cognitive and sentient creatures like whales for any reason and see it as an ethical and moral issue.
The Humane Society Institute for Science & Policy sponsored a symposium in March that suggested sentience should be considered when legislators deliberate policies that could impact animals with cognitive abilities. Excerpt from the website:
Science is making stunning discoveries about animal cognition, awareness and emotion. How can we leverage this information for positive change in government and industry? This two-day conference brings together thought-leaders in the science and implications of animal sentience, and influential voices in the policy and corporate domains. As the bedrock of ethics, sentience deserves a more prominent place in the legislative and corporate landscape.
Whales and dolphins have long been known for their communal nature, intelligence and linguistic abilities.
Philip Hoare noted in The Guardian that ICJ ruling may put restrictions on Japan, but it doesn’t mean whales are safe from a massive host of other human-induced perils they face like bycatch, ship strikes, oil spills and increasing garbage-pollution in their habitats.
“Whose whales are they anyway? From sentient marine mammals to apparently downed airliners and the drastic effects of climate change, the world's oceans, and what we do to them, may be the last great battleground,” wrote Hoare.
Japanese authorities said they were “disappointed” with the ruling, but they are a nation of laws and would comply with the verdict.
Nonetheless, there is already indication that Japan will closely review the court’s rule with a view toward reshaping their whaling program, according to Nori Shikata.
Forestry and Fisheries official, Masayuki Komatsu, responded to the ICJ’s ruling by saying whales were plentiful and referred to the restrictions on culling them as invalid.
"It would not be appropriate to comply with a judgment based on illegal articles," said Komatsu as quoted in Science Daily Magazine.
The ICJ ruling may deprive Japan’s restaurants, dinner tables and grocery stores from a few hundred whales this year, but the question remains for how much longer?