Earlier this month, many cetacean researchers and conservationists rejoiced when Japan canceled its controversial scientific whale hunt in Antarctica in response to an order from the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands.  Now, however, Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) says it plans to resume research whaling in the region next year, with a program that is “in accord” with the court’s ruling. But ICR’s move could be just a legal maneuver, some observers say.
ICR’s plans became public last week, after the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), an antiwhaling group known for harassing Japanese whaling ships, publicized legal briefs the research agency filed in a federal court in Seattle, Washington.  (ICR is seeking a court order preventing SSCS from interfering with its fleet when killing whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.) Although the documents provide few details, ICR says it plans to resume its Antarctic hunts beginning in the 2015 to 2016 season. (Japan has a second scientific whale hunt in the North Pacific that is not affected by the international court’s ruling.)
The news came as little surprise to those following the controversy. “It’s entirely consistent with what I would expect from ICR,” says Phillip Clapham, a marine biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington. Clapham has served as a member of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee, which for decades has been critical of Japan’s research whaling program.
Resuming whaling in the Antarctic could be easier said than done, specialists say. To comply with the international court’s ruling, Japan will have to offer valid scientific reasons for the number of whales it wants to kill and include nonlethal research methods to meet research objectives. Indeed, Clapham quips that the process is so daunting that “I wouldn’t want to be a scientist who’s been told to come up with a new research program that makes any sense.” (Any new program will also be reviewed by the whaling commission’s scientific council, but Japan does not need its approval to proceed.)
It’s possible that ICR does not intend to resume Antarctic whaling, but is instead pursuing a legal strategy in its case against SSCS. “In order to continue the court case … they [the ICR] have to say they’ll be working in the Antarctic in 2015, even if that decision hasn’t been made,” Clapham writes in an e-mail. ICR may be trying to demonstrate that its need for an injunction against SSCS “is not moot,” adds Alison Rieser, a specialist in international law at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
Japan’s whaling fleet returned from the Southern Ocean last month after killing 251 minke whales instead of the planned 935, partly because of harassment by protesters from Sea Shepherd Australia.