The ruling in favor of preservation for Antarctic whales was the outcome of a case brought to the court by Australia in 2010, which claimed that Japan’s activities in the Southern Ocean were in direct contravention of the 1986 global moratorium on whaling. Of the three countries still practicing whaling — Iceland, Norway and Japan — only Japan agreed to the terms of the moratorium, which was drawn up by the International Whaling Commission. However, since then, Japan has continued to hunt and kill hundreds of whales each year, citing a loophole in the convention that allows participating nations to conduct small-scale whaling for scientific purposes. The case presented by Australia’s Rudd government in 2010 claimed that Japan was exploiting this clause to “cloak its ongoing commercial whaling in the lab coat of science.” The court ruled in favor of the case by a vote of 12 to 4, with the presiding judge stating that the permits to hunt granted by Japan as part of their research program did not meet the requirements of the moratorium. As a result, Japan has been ordered to withdraw all existing permits for Antarctic whaling and may not issue any new ones. The decision is legally binding, and as the highest judicial body of the U.N., the International Court of Justice’s rulings cannot be appealed.
This decision comes as a landmark victory for conservation groups, which have been campaigning against Japan’s Antarctic whaling activity for many years. The ruling is a vindication of sorts for marine-conservation group Sea Shepherd, which has come under fire multiple times for their militant approach to ending whaling in the Southern Ocean. Jeff Hanson, the managing director for Sea Shepherd Australia, said in a statement that his group has up until now been the only organization “upholding the law in defense of the International Whale Sanctuary,” which should change with the new legislation. Representatives of Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency were equally hopeful about what this decision means for the whales’ future, commending it for exposing as a falsehood Japan’s claim to be whaling for research purposes. Japan’s reaction was predictably somewhat different, with the spokesman for the Japanese delegation to the International Court of Justice, Noriyuki Shikata, saying that his nation was “deeply disappointed by the decision.” He confirmed that Japan would abide by the court’s ruling, although inferred that changes to the scientific permits to make them acceptable to the terms of the moratorium could be a possibility. In theory, such changes could see Japan’s whaling rights reinstated, if in compliance with the rules of the convention.
As the court found, the current permits issued by Japan in accordance with its JARPA II research program have very little to do with science. Since the passing of the whaling moratorium in 1986, Japanese whalers have killed 10,439 minke whales and 15 fin whales, not including the whales caught during the most recent hunting season. Of the minke whales, 3,600 were part of the JARPA II program, which was launched in 2005 and has an annual kill quota of 850 minkes, 50 fin whales and 50 humpbacks. These quotas are not usually met, thanks in part to the actions of conservationists in the Southern Ocean.
Despite Japan’s claim that whaling is necessary in order to gather data about cetacean populations, the nation’s scientific community has released just two peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject since 2005. The court determined that Japan could not provide proof of enough research to justify the large number of whales killed each year, and that the nation had not made any effort to explore non-fatal methods of collecting similar data.
Whale meat is sold commercially in Japan, which, while not illegal, further undermines the smokescreen of whaling for scientific purposes. The trade in whale meat is in itself becoming increasingly obsolete, because of Japanese tastes waning considerably in recent years. Japanese government statistics stated that nearly 4,600 tons of whale meat remained unsold in port freezers all over the country at the end of 2012. Effectively, the slaughter of hundreds of whales had become a practice that was not only legally questionable but also incredibly wasteful.
The International Court of Justice’s decision means that this practice has, for now anyway, come to an end. As stated, the ruling does not necessarily preclude Japan from altering its research program and therefore being permitted to hunt once more. It does, however, show the support of the international community is largely on the side of the whales and proves that with perseverance, and a change in public perception, conservation efforts can be translated into law. It’s hoped that the ruling will act as a precedent and lead to the end of all whaling worldwide, for research purposes and otherwise.