The United Nation’s highest court begins hearings on Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. Australia has taken the matter to the International Court of Justice in a last ditch attempt to save the mammals from extinction.
Australia is arguing that Japan is exploiting a loophole in the International ban on commercial whaling adopted in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission.
Japan continues to hunt whales in what they say is scientific research conducted to "better understand the sustainability of whale stocks."
Several countries and wildlife protection NGOs, however, say this is a cover and the whale meat is intended for human consumption.
In its application to the UN's highest judicial body, which was set up in 1945 to settle disputes between states, Australia accuses Japan of breaching its obligation to "observe in good faith the zero catch limit in relation to the killing of whales."
"More than 10,000 whales have been killed as a result of Japan's so-called scientific whaling program since the moratorium commenced in the mid-1980s," said Mark Dreyfus, Australia's attorney general.
Canberra took Tokyo to court in 2010 claiming the Asian nation was in breach of international conventions and its obligation to preserve marine mammals and their environment.
Japan, however, says it's JARPA and JARPA II research programs are sustainable.
It argues it has a right to monitor the whales' impact on its fishing industry.
Japanese diplomat Noriyuki Shikata said the Japanese Whale Research Program yielded essential information about the age distribution and proportion of males to females in the Antarctic whale population, which helped decide if stocks were recovering.
"There are about 515,000 minke whales in the Antarctic, and Japan's research is taking only about 815 a year," Shikata said. "This is below the reproductive rate.”
Japan killed around 6,500 Antarctic minke whales between 1987 and 2005, after the moratorium came into effect, compared to 840 whales for research purposes in the 31 years prior to the moratorium, ICJ court papers said.
A further 2,500 minke whales were killed between 2005 and 2009 under the JARPA II program.
Minke whales are not endangered, but JARPA II also allows for the killing of endangered mammals including humpback and fin whales.
Tokyo defends the practice of eating whale meat as a culinary tradition and it can be still found at stores and special restaurants in Japan but is not as popular as it used to be due to the high price and the controversy.
The number of killed whales has been declining: The haul from Japan's most recent whaling mission in the Southern Ocean was a "record low," the government said earlier this year, blaming "unforgivable sabotage" by activists.
Whalers came back with just 103 Antarctic minke whales, less than half its tally last year, and no fin whales, after repeatedly clashing with militant environmentalist group Sea Shepherd.
Sea Shepherd will have observers at the ICJ and Geert Vons, the group's director in the Netherlands said it was a make-or-break case for the sea mammals, claiming that all necessary research on these whales could be done by non-lethal means.
"If nothing happens now, nothing else is going to happen," he said.
The hearings are expected to last for 11 days, with New Zealand supporting Australia. A judgment will take months.
The court's decisions are final and both countries have agreed to be bound by the court ruling.
Australia is hoping that the court will issue a ruling banning Japanese whaling by the year's end, soon enough to halt the next whaling season, which generally begins in December and takes Japan's whaling fleet to the Antarctic Ocean, where Australia declared a whale sanctuary in 1999.
Norway and Iceland still have whaling programs in spite of the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling and have no intention of stopping them.
rg/hc (AFP, Reuters, AP)