Japan's whaling program hangs in the balance after the International Court of Justice on Monday ordered an immediate end to its annual slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean.
The verdict came four years after Australia petitioned the UN court to rule that the expeditions in the icy waters of the Antarctic were not, as Japan has long claimed, for scientific research, since meat from the hunts is sold in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants.
A panel of judges agreed by 12 votes to four that Japan had failed to prove that its annual cull quota of almost 1,000 minke whales and 50 fin whales was of any scientific value.
"The court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with Jarpa II [Japan's whaling program] are not for purposes of scientific research," said Peter Tomka, the presiding judge.
The ruling has brought an abrupt end to the Antarctic hunt, but it doesn't necessarily spell an end to Japan's whaling program. Experts believe the verdict leaves Japan with a choice: to abandon whaling – a centuries-old tradition in some coastal communities – or devise a new, scaled-back program that culls fewer whales and has a more clear-cut scientific brief. A third, and least likely, option for Japan would be to risk yet more international opprobrium by joining Iceland and Norway in ignoring the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling.
Undermining 'scientific' argument
Under the IWC's 1986 ban, Japan was permitted to kill whales to collect data on their feeding, reproductive, and other habits with a view to the eventual resumption of sustainable commercial whaling. But the sale of meat from the hunts, while permitted, prompted accusations from Australia that Japan was cloaking a commercial operation "in the lab coat of science."
In a statement, Japan said it was "disappointed" with the ruling, but would respect it as a country that "places great importance on the international legal order and the rule of law as a basis of the international community." Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for the Japanese delegation to the UN court, says: "In terms of a future course of action, officials in Tokyo will examine that after they have read the ruling in full, but we have made our position clear – that we will abide by the judgment."
Japan continues to catch a smaller number of whales, again for what it says is scientific research, in the northwest Pacific Ocean, and is permitted to hunt smaller cetacean species – for sale as meat – in its coastal waters. Those mammals, including the Baird's Beaked Whale, are not covered by the IWC moratorium.
Coastal subsistence whaling in Japan stretches back to the 12th century, but whaling as a commercial venture did not begin until the late 19th century. While many Japanese are ambivalent toward their country's whaling industry, residents of coastal whaling towns, supported by local politicians with close ties to the fisheries agency, have described Australia's legal action, along with frequent criticism from other foreign governments, as a form of cultural imperialism. If the West slaughters cows and pigs with impunity, so their thinking goes, why shouldn't they be allowed to eat whale meat?
Prof. Steven Freeland, an expert on international law at the University of Western Sydney in Australia, believes Japan could eventually find a way to send its fleet back to the Southern Ocean, given that the court recognized that scientific research did not necessarily preclude slaughtering whales.
"The problem for Japan was its failure to take proper account of non-lethal methods of research or to justify the actual catch numbers it had declared," he said in a statement carried by Agence France-Presse.
"Japan may instead take a very close look at why its implementation of [its research program] fell foul of its legal obligations and perhaps seek to design and ultimately implement a new whaling program that takes into account all of those elements."
Strong opposition to whaling
But even a new program involving dramatically smaller catches would struggle to convince other members of the IWC, more than half of whom oppose whaling.
"It still does leave Japan with a decision to make after they've digested this, which is to look at whether they try to devise a new program that is scientifically based that they could embark upon whaling in the Southern Ocean again," said New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully. "Our task is to make sure that we carry out a diplomatic conversation that dissuades them from embarking on that course."
Ultimately, the biggest challenge to Japan's whaling industry could come at home. The public response to Monday's ruling has been subdued, with consumers apparently far more concerned about an unpopular hike in the sales tax that took effect on Tuesday.
While whale meat was seen as a welcome source of protein just after World War II, Japanese have now lost their appetite for it. A dramatic decline in consumption since that postwar heyday has created a 4,600-ton stockpile of unsold meat that sits in freezers at ports.
A 2006 survey by the Nippon Research Center found that 95 percent of Japanese never or rarely eat whale meat. And a 2012 investigation into by the International Fund for Animal Welfare said 88.8 percent of Japanese had not bought whale meat in the previous 12 months. Campaigners say they expect Japan to observe both the letter and the spirit of the law.
"We welcome the court's findings," says Patrick Ramage, director of the global whale program at IFAW. "We had long pushed for whales to have their day in court, and we are very pleased that justice has been served.
"The government of Japan has a strong record of genuinely respecting international institutions, and we fully expect Japan will abide by the court's ruling."