Animal rights activist rejoiced earlier this year when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) told Japan to halt its whaling program on the grounds that it was commercial, not scientific.
The celebration was short-lived.
Japan announced in September that it would be returning to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary next year with a remodeled scientific program. Japan has long taken advantage of a loophole in the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allowed for the killing of whales for scientific research, and the leftover whale products to be sold on the market.
Japan’s announcement comes in spite of the fact that both the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the ICJ ruled past Japanese whaling programs were illegal. Last month, the IWC adopted a non-binding resolution that set new guidelines for scientific programs, giving the commission authority to assess whether lethal samples are necessary for a specific research program and whether the number of whales sampled is scientifically justified. If Japan complied with the IWC’s resolution, it would have been forced to extend a moratorium on its whaling until 2016. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary said the resolution has “no legal binding effect,” and shortly afterwards, Japan announced it will resume whale hunts in 2015.
There is little evidence to suggest that Japan’s killing of 14,000 whales in the name of research can be justified as scientifically necessary. The alleged goal of the first 18 years of Japan’s research was to estimate the number of Minke whales in the Antarctic, as well as to try to estimate mortality rates and find out more about the whales’ role in the ecosystem. For this research, 6,800 whales were killed. Australia, which brought the case against Japan in the ICJ, argued that estimating the mortality chances of whales in any given year was “practically unachievable,” thereby undermining the stated purpose of Japan’s whaling research. Similarly, the most recent program, which was struck down by the ICJ in April, has not contributed any significant knowledge to the management and conservation of whales. Nevertheless, this did not stop Japanese PM Shinzo Abe from telling parliament in June that the scientific data obtained from whaling programs are “indispensable to the management of whaling resources.”
Japan goes to extreme lengths to mask its whaling activities as scientific. Whaling vessels have the word ‘RESEARCH’ painted in English on their bows. Whenever activists take pictures or videos of workers cutting up whales on deck, the crew holds up signs that say things like “We are weighing stomach contents” or “We are collecting tissue samples.”
Motivation for Japan’s continued whaling is also impractical. Consumption of whale meat is down to just one percent of its peak in 1960, yet the Japanese government continues to spend millions every year funding whaling activities and subsidizing whale meat. There was a public outcry in 2011 when $24.89 million earmarked for whaling was quietly added to a supplementary budget directed at revitalizing the tsunami-devastated Tohoku region.
The government sees the global crackdown on whaling as an imposition on Japanese cultural norms. Local politicians are very vocal on the issue despite the waning popularity of whale meat in the country. Shortly after the ICJ ruling, Japanese lawmakers from across party lines came together for a whale meat eating event in protest of the court’s decision.
“Japan’s whaling is based on scientific reasons, while counterarguments by anti-whaling groups are emotional, saying they are against the hunts because whales are cute or smart,” said Shunichi Suzuki, a Lower House lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Some have argued that the best way to save whales is to sanction commercial whaling. As of now, Japanese whaling is completely unrestrained, with large numbers of whales killed every year in areas that are supposedly off-limits. So some think that if commercial whaling is made legal, the IWC could set strict catch limits and enforce whaling free zones. The U.S.’s official position is to oppose lifting on the 1986 moratorium.
It is yet to be seen whether there will be another case brought against Japan in the ICJ. For now, Japan can count on the slowness of international bureaucracy to keep whaling under the guise of scientific research. Japan can whale for years in a legal gray area each time it remodels its research program.
Joaquim is an intern at ThinkProgress.