SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA— The International Court of Justice in the Hague hears opening arguments Wednesday in Australia's case against Japan's whaling program in the Southern Ocean. The Australian government is hopeful court action will stop Japan's annual hunt, but Tokyo is expected to mount a vigorous defense of its whaling program.
Australia started legal action against Japan’s annual hunt in the Southern Ocean in 2010 to stop what it calls the “illegal” and “unnecessary slaughter” of thousands of whales in the icy waters of the Antarctic.
Canberra says the hunt breaches international laws, including a global moratorium on commercial whaling, and has no relevance to marine conservation.
Japan maintains that its activities are legal and have genuine scientific and cultural objectives. It has granted itself a “scientific permit,” which is permissible under rules drawn up by the International Whaling Commission.
If the court sides with Australia, the justices could order Japan to scale back its whaling operations to the point where they are no longer viable.
“Ultimately, Australia really wants to stop the annual whale [hunt]," said Professor Donald Rothwell from the Australian National University. "But even if it does get a decision out of the court in which the court puts a number on the whales that can be taken by Japan for scientific research purposes, that number may be so small that it just makes it completely economically unfeasible for Japan to continue its current whaling operation.”
There has been a ban on commercial whale hunting for a quarter of a century, but Japan aims to catch about 1,000 whales each year for what it calls research.
Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the hunt is an essential way to conduct surveys of “biological parameters," such as the age composition, sexual maturity and pregnancy rate” of whales. Critics argue there is little more Japan can conclude about sustainable whale populations after carrying out its research in the decades since the international moratorium was established.
Officials in Tokyo also stress there are compelling cultural reasons for the annual hunt, which they say is of” socio-economic significance” to some of the Japanese small coastal communities hit by the ban on commercial hunting.
Japan also insists its whaling operations are ecologically sustainable, and it does not hide the fact that the resulting meat is sold commercially. Tokyo defends the practice of eating whale meat as a culinary tradition. Sales proceeds partially pay for the whaling program.
Australia will be supported by New Zealand at the International Court of Justice. Experts say its decision, which could come by the end of the year, will be legally binding.
The annual hunt in the Southern Ocean has also seen increasingly heated confrontations between the whaling fleet and conservationists in recent years.
Court papers say Japan killed some 6,500 Antarctic minke whales between 1987 and 2005, after the moratorium came into effect, compared to 840 whales for research purposed in the 31 years prior to the moratorium.