A partial end to Japanese whaling

The International Court of Justice has ruled that Japan’s whaling in the Southern Ocean is in violation of its obligations under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. The Court ordered Japan to immediately cease its whaling in the Southern Ocean and not to pursue the JARPA II research program further.

Japan was exploiting a provision in the Whaling Convention that allowed whales to be killed ‘for the purposes of scientific research’. Although the court accepted that JARPA II was broadly scientific, it concluded that scale and implementation of the whaling was unreasonable for the purpose of achieving the stated research objectives.

The Court was particularly critical of the lack of transparency in how quotas were determined, the lack of consideration for non-lethal methods, the open-ended time frame, the lack of coordination with related research programs and the meagre research output.

On the website for the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), the organisation that carries out Japan’s whaling, it’s claimed that JARPA and JARPA II have produced 130 peer-reviewed publications since 1988. But the ICR includes everything that people associated with them publish, including work on fish, oceanography, seabirds and non-lethal whale research. Only a small fraction of the published studies involve whales killed in the Southern Ocean.

The JARPA II program, which was the subject of the case, began in late 2005 and has killed about 3,600 minke whales since then. Japan was only able to produce two peer-reviewed papers that made use of just nine of the whales caught. The Court also noted that neither of the two papers related to the stated research objectives of JARPA II.

A third paper that used whales killed in the JARPA II program was published in February this year, after the Court finished hearing the case. This study examined the stomach contents of nearly 8,500 whales, 1,828 sourced from JARPA II. This study, unlike the other two, appears to be consistent with the stated objectives of JARPA II, but it is unclear why such a large number of whales were required.

The value of the study is also dubious. It established that the amount of krill in minke whale stomachs has declined by almost a third over a twenty-year period. This isn’t a surprising result. The decline in krill abundance in the Southern Ocean is already well documented, as are the flow on effects to krill-dependent predators, like whales.

Australia did not dispute that lethal sampling was sometimes necessary to meet research objectives, but argued that the Whaling Convention only allows for this when no other means are available. The Court noted that while the necessity for lethal sampling was a matter of scientific opinion, Japan was obliged to consider alternatives and could provide no evidence that it had.

It seems that it was this failure to show that non-lethal methods had been fully considered and the inability to adequately justify the numbers of whales taken that really swung the case against Japan.

The ruling is not subject to appeal and Japan stated that it would abide by the Court’s decision. Japan has also more recently announced the cancellation of JARPA II whaling activities scheduled for the coming southern summer. But the decision is not an end to Japanese whaling. Japan will continue whaling in the western North Pacific. And the door is not closed to Japan returning to the Southern Ocean with a reworked program that is consistent with the Court’s ruling.