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How does Japan get away with 'horrific' whale hunting?

Animal rights activists insist that the international community could have done more to stop what they consider to be thinly disguised commercial whaling. Japan says it is for research purposes. Julian Ryall reports.

Japan has said it is willing to "fully comply" with an international fact-finding team dispatched by the member states of the Washington Convention to determine whether Japan's research whaling program violates the treaty.

The Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) opened its annual five-day meeting in Geneva on Monday, with Japan's hunting of endangered sei whales one of the main topics on the agenda. Members agreed to send a team to Japan to look into the annual cull of 134 sei whales in the North Pacific in the coming months and delay a decision on whether the hunt is actually thinly disguised as commercial whaling, which many other nations and conservation groups claim is the case.

Read more: Sea Shepherd quits campaign - giving Japan's whalers free rein?

USA Sea Shepherds Aktivisten protestieren gegen Kampf gegen japanische Walfänger

Environmentalists protesting against Japan's whaling program

Endangered species

CITES recognizes sei whales as an endangered species, but Japan uses a loophole in international regulations that permits it to harpoon a quota in order to carry out research. If the fact-finding mission determines that the whaling is not producing data or that it is commercial in nature, then the CITES Standing Committee can recommend that Japan halt its hunt.

Representatives of the United States and New Zealand used the meeting to express concern about Japan's whaling, claiming that Tokyo is failing to release adequate information on its program, although Japan disputes that claim.

"We explained to the meeting about our catch of sei whales for scientific research rather than for commercial purposes," said Yuki Morita, a spokesman for the Whaling Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Tokyo.

"We emphasized that all parts of the whale are used and that the meat that is later sold on the market is to raise funds to cover the costs of the next year's research," he told DW.

"CITES has asked us to provide more information and we are happy to fully comply with that request," Morita added.

Environmental groups, however, have expressed anger at CITES failure to act more decisively in the campaign against whaling.

Sue Fisher, of the Animal Welfare Institute, said, "Japan has already had more than a year to demonstrate that it is in compliance with the treaty. The fact is that it cannot; its use of sei whale meat is clearly commercial."

"Now, another 134 whales will die for Japan to be given 'due process,'" she said.

The institute's web page quoted Mark Simmonds of Humane Society International as saying, "CITES failed to stand up for its rules."

"Japan's domestic market sales of thousands of tons of sei whale products each year are not for the purpose of science, and the whale products sold are not the by-products of research," Simmonds said. "Securing whale meat is the primary motivation for the hunt and it is brought into Japan to maintain and further build a commercial market."

Read more: Japan kills 333 whales in annual Antarctic hunt, flouting international laws

'Sham will continue'

"With today's decision, this sham will continue," he added.

Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, echoed the anger over Tokyo's continued defiance of the international community's concerns about its whaling industry.

"There has already been a ruling by the International Court of Justice that Japan's whaling is illegal and Tokyo has openly stated in the past that it wants to resume commercial whaling," he told DW. "Everything we are seeing is preparations for that and I believe it is time that the rest of the world stopped pussy-footing around Japan and sorted this out."

Hansen believes that most people in Japan have little understanding of the cruelty involved in hunting whales, or how much it costs taxpayers.

"People do not know that whale meat is stockpiled because they cannot sell it because not enough people want to eat it," he said. "Japanese people do not know that whale meat has high levels of mercury and is therefore dangerous to eat, and they are not told that the industry is heavily subsidized by the government to allow it to continue."

"Why are taxpayers' funds being used to fund an insane mission on the other side of the world for a product that no-one wants?" he asked.

Hansen is also disappointed at the failure of the Australian government to halt Japanese whaling ships operating in a declared whale sanctuary in the Southern Ocean and this week released footage taken by Australian Customs officials in 2008 of the Japanese whalers' operations.

Read more: Australia protests as Japan resumes whaling 

Watch video 01:14

Japan ordered to end "scientific" whaling

Footage 'suppressed'

The Australian government "suppressed" the footage, Hansen said, on the grounds that "the images of this horrific slaughter would harm diplomatic relationships with Japan."

Working with other environmental groups, Sea Shepherd was only able to get access to the footage through a laborious freedom of information request.

"This footage shows the bloody brutality, cruelty and senseless killing of such beautiful, intelligent and majestic animals," Hansen said. "These whales are hunted down, before being hit with an explosive harpoon that sends shrapnel through their bodies, while prongs come out so that the whale cannot escape."

The fortunate ones die in around three minutes, he said, although Sea Shepherd activists have seen a whale take 22 minutes to die.

"Sea Shepherd is asking the Australian government to do all it can to end whaling, by not only sending a ship to the Antarctic but to also take Japan to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, where Japan can be challenged over its activities as Japan is not meeting its international obligations to sustainably protect whales," he added. "The tribunal has a system of mandatory dispute settlement, one that's very difficult to opt out of and there is very little Japan could do about it."