The International Court of Justice of the United Nations on Monday ordered a halt to Japan's annual whale hunt in the Antarctic Ocean. In its ruling, the court challenged the claim of the Japanese that the hunt is for scientific purposes and said that Japan was in violation of international whaling laws.
In 2010, Australia had sued Japan in an effort to resolve the long ongoing dispute which sought to end whaling in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia contended that Japan was using a loophole to get around the worldwide moratorium on whaling imposed in 1986.
Japan had countered with an assertion that it needs data gathered from the whale hunt to monitor the whale population’s recovery from overfishing impact and to monitor the impact of whales on its fishing industry. Japan further argued that the suit was brought in an attempt by Australia to impose its cultural norms on Japan.
The “research program” has produced just two peer-reviewed papers since 2005. The meat from the slaughtered whales is sold commercially in Japan.
Gasps were heard in the courtroom as Presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia read the 12-4 ruling of the 16-judge panel, saying that the present “research program,” dating to 2005, has involved the killing of 3,600 minke whales and a number of fin whales, but that its “scientific output to date appears limited.”
The ruling suggested that Japan’s whaling hunt were for political and economic reasons. The court ordered Japan to revoke all current whaling permits for the region and not issue any new ones under the existing program.
The ruling is binding, which means Japan cannot appeal. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday said that Japan was deeply disappointed, but would abide by the ruling and the rule of law.
Environmental groups, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, praised the decision. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has sent ships to both the northern and southern whale hunting grounds to harass and block Japan’s whaling fleet.
“We are very happy with the backing of the International Court,” Geert Vons, a representative of Sea Shepherd, said. “We had never expected such a strong ruling, telling Japan to cancel all of its Southern Ocean licenses.”
The decision is a major victory for Australia and environmental groups that oppose whaling on ethical grounds, though it will not mean the end of whaling for Japan.
There was some speculation that Japan would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, the main international body that regulates whaling. In 1986, the IWC ordered a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986. Membership in the International Whaling Commission is voluntary, and compliance is expected.
Under IWC rules, member countries are allowed to issue themselves as many permits as they see fit to kill whales for scientific purposes. The permits are subject to a nonbinding review by a 200-member scientific committee. This is the same committee that has been critical of Japan for many of the same reasons outlined by the UN court in Monday's ruling.
Norway and Iceland, while remaining members of the IWC, have ignored the 1986 moratorium and continue to hold hunts. Norway whale hunts kill roughly 500 minke whales in the northeast Atlantic each year, while Iceland hunts kill about 50 whales annually.
Mitsumasa Kamiota, an official with Japan's Fisheries Agency, said that Japan does not intend to leave the IWC but hinted that Japan may eventually come up with a new research program in the Antarctic. He also gave no indication that Japan will quit research whaling altogether. He pointed out that Monday's ruling only affects the country's Antarctic program, and whaling in the north Pacific will continue.
Japan has a second research program in the north Pacific which may be open to challenge because it is not covered in Monday’s decision. The North Pacific whale hunt kills about 100 minke whales annually.