Court may end Japan’s research whaling

Japan has never denied that its research is aimed at proving that commercial whaling is environmentally sustainable

In all other aspects, the two countries are close trading partners. But when Australia and Japan meet at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Monday, in a case that could prove critical to the survival of the whale in the Antarctic, old divisions over hunting the ocean’s biggest mammal will again surface.

The legitimacy of Japan’s whaling in Antarctic waters has long been contested by Australia. It is four years since Australian authorities accused Tokyo of exploiting a loophole in legislation that allows the hunting of whales in the name of scientific research, despite a 1986 ban on commercial whaling in the Antarctic. Australia has asked the court to order Japan to stop its research programme and “revoke any authorisations, permits or licences” to hunt for whales in the Southern Ocean.

Japan has never denied that its research is aimed at proving that commercial whaling is environmentally sustainable, but refuses to discuss the scientific merit of its operations.

The two countries have agreed not to let their disagreement cloud commercial interests. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is currently negotiating a trade deal with Japan, which could be finalised within the next few months.

Claire Bass, head of wildlife campaigns at the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said: “At its heart, this case is not about science, or Japan or Australia, but the unnecessary, inhumane exploitation of animals.”

A result favouring Australia would bind Japan to stop its programme in the Southern Ocean with no chance of appeal. This case, the first of its kind, would also set a precedent for other countries intending to carry out whaling under the guise of scientific research.

If Japan were to win the case, the situation would remain unchanged. A less definitive outcome could result in Japan reducing its annual cull quota and provide what Bass called “a quiet backdoor exit for Japan”.

The International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling allows Japan to continue whaling, as scientific research, with a self-imposed quota limit. Japan set a maximum quota of 1,035 whales a year in the region. The number permits the killing of some endangered species including humpback and fin whales.

The cull has often been hindered by the activities of the anti-whaling charity Sea Shepherd. The organisation claims that it saved 750 whales in last winter’s operation.

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