On Tuesday, Dec. 1, Japan's whaling fleet will set sail towards Antarctic waters for a three-month hunt despite international outcry, including the United Nations' International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling last year that Japan's whaling pursuits do not qualify as scientific research and should therefore be put to a stop.
Earlier this year the International Whaling Commission, which imposed a commercial ban on whaling in 1986, was left unconvinced that whales need to be killed at all in the name of scientific research. It is under this research exemption that Japan has continued to kill whales, a longstanding national heritage, for the past three decades. According to the ICJ lawsuit, Japan has killed almost 95% of the 14,410 whales hunted for research since the 1986 moratorium.
The UN court ruling from 2014 regarding whaling in the Antarctic, which pitted Japan against Australia, found that the hunts were more of a cover story for commercial whaling than anything to do with scientific merit. The court found no evidence that Japan had tried to determine whether they could collect a smaller lethal take as part of their research, known as JARPA II, which portends to study ecosystem monitoring and multi-species competition.
The court concluded that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing of whales in connection with JARPA II are not “for purposes of scientific research."
In an effort to appease the authorities, Japan, which did not kill any whales during an Antarctic research trip in 2014, plans to catch about one-third of the minke whales it previously killed annually—some 333—each year for the next 12 years. In a joint statement on Monday, Japan's Fisheries Agency and Foreign Ministry said the plan, which involves four vessels and 160 crew members, will be reevaluated in six years.
Japan's announcement to go ahead with the controversial hunt this year and for the foreseeable future did not sit well with Australia. Australian environment minister, Greg Hunt, said in a statement that Australia does "not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called ‘scientific research.’”
Hunt's statement says that while Japan previously agreed to abide by the ICJ's ruling to stop the country's whaling program, Japan has now "withdrawn consent for such matters to be litigated before the International Court of Justice."
"We will continue to urge Japan to pursue non-lethal methods of research and end its unnecessary whaling program," stated Hunt.
Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation group known to engage in direct action, condemned Japan’s plans, with CEO of Sea Shepherd Global, Captain Alex Cornelissen, saying that the group "would like to remind the Japanese government that the whales of the Southern Ocean are protected by international law, by Australian law and by Sea Shepherd."
"Any violation of the sanctity of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary or the Australian Whale Sanctuary will be regarded as a criminal act," he said. “If Sea Shepherd comes across criminal activity, then our history speaks for itself. We will, as always, directly intervene to prevent that crime from taking place."
Mature minke whales, which can grow to be about 30 feet long and weigh nearly seven tons, have a layer of blubber several inches thick. They are the most abundant baleen whale in existence, with an estimated population of around 800,000 to over a million worldwide . This thriving population is one of the reasons defenders of the hunt, including the Japanese government, use to justify it.
According to the American Cetacean Society, up until recently minke whales were considered too small to be killed by whalers. However, as larger whale species became depleted, whalers started hunting them as replacements. The ACS estimates that minke populations have started to increase as food previously eaten by more dominant large whale species became available.
While whale meat has recently declined substantially as a food source in Japan, it remains an important cultural practice used in ceremonies and tourism.
Japan has also found itself in hot water for another seemingly esoteric hunting practice involving dolphins. This annual hunt, exposed to the international public by the 2009 documentary "The Cove," involves trapping hundreds of dolphins in a secluded bay before slaughtering them. In 2014, the hunters caught 937 dolphins in the bay and the current season’s quota is set at 1,873. Unlike with minke whales, the International Whaling Commission does not protect dolphins and many other small cetaceans.
On top of the 333 minke whales Japanese whalers plan to kill in the Antarctic, last year Japanese authorities also announced plans to kill 51 minke whales annually for “research” purposes along the country's northern coastline. According to those in charge, the research is aimed at determining the contents of whales' stomachs to better understand the impact of their predation on coastal fishing.
The whale meat will also be sold in markets and restaurants.