A minke whale and her 1-year-old calf are dragged aboard a Japanese vessel. The image was taken and released by the Australian government, which disputes that Japan is whaling for scientific purposes.

Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia

Is this science? A minke whale and her 1-year-old calf are dragged aboard a Japanese vessel. The image was taken and released by the Australian government, which disputes that Japan is whaling for scientific purposes.

Japan Ordered to Stop Scientific Whaling

Japan has to stop capturing and killing whales under its whaling program in the Antarctic, called JARPA II, the International Court of Justice has said.

In a judgment issued in The Hague in the Netherlands today, the U.N. court has ordered Japan to revoke existing permits to catch whales for scientific purposes and to stop granting such permits in the future. The ruling is a victory for Australia, which filed court proceedings against Japan's whaling in 2010, arguing that it breached international obligations.

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling, allowing the taking and killing of whales for research purposes only. Scientific catch limits are set by each country on a yearly basis, submitted to a review by IWC's scientific committee.

Antiwhaling critics say that Japanese whale research is a fig leaf for commercial hunting, as whale meat can be sold to cover research costs. Japan counters that its whale meat sale is not profitable and that it needs to take and kill whales to study the animals and their potential as a food source.

The court said that JARPA II activities can “broadly be characterized as scientific research,” but found several “shortcomings” with the program's details—saying in particular that Japan had not paid enough attention to nonlethal methods. “The evidence does not establish that the programme’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives,” the court said. Therefore, “the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not 'for purposes of scientific research,' ” the judges added.

By 12 votes to four, the court ruled that Japan had breached several obligations under the Schedule to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Masayuki Komatsu, a former Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official now at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, says that whales are abundant, and therefore the moratorium and whaling restrictions are invalid in the first place. "It would not be appropriate to comply with a judgment based on illegal articles," Komatsu tells ScienceInsider.

The judgment is binding and without appeal, however, and Japan has already issued a statement saying that it will abide by the ruling, even though it is “disappointed.” (The statement was posted on Twitter by Patrick Ramage, director of the Global Whale Program of the International Fund for Animal Welfare; a Japanese foreign affairs official in The Hague confirmed its authenticity.)

With reporting by Dennis Normile in Tokyo.

Posted in Asia/Pacific, Plants & Animals, Policy Whales