Japan to renew bid for Antarctic whaling

Just months after an international court ruled against Japan's 'research' whaling program, Prime Minister Abe has backed a new approach that advocates say will have demonstrable scientific value.

Issei Kato/Reuters
Japan's Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission Joji Morishita attends a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo June 10, 2014.

Just three months after it was forced to cancel the jewel in the crown of its “research” whaling program, Japan is preparing to return to the Antarctic in search of whales, promising a new approach that will not only be of demonstrable scientific value but will pave the way toward a resumption of commercial whaling.

Environmental groups celebrated in late March when the International Court of Justice [ICJ] in The Hague ruled that Japan’s “research” whaling program was in fact a cover for a commercial venture.

But this week, Joji Morishita, Japan’s commissioner to the International Whaling Commission [IWC], claimed his compatriots felt backed into a corner by anti-whaling nations – and is pushing to send the whaling fleet back to the Southern Ocean.

“Whaling is criticized sometimes as evil, barbaric, or inhumane, and that there is no place for it in the 21st century,” Morishita said. “We see that often. If you are living in Japan, you feel like this is an attack with no legitimate reason.

“Even if some countries thinks that whales are special or sacred, as long as whales are sustainably utilized, that view should not be imposed on others who like to utilize whale resources."

Japan has been able to exploit a loophole in the IWC moratorium to continue killing more than 900 whales every winter for what it insisted was research into their breeding, migratory, and other habits.

The ICJ, however, said Japan had failed to demonstrate that the Antarctic hunts – the meat from which is sold legally in restaurants and supermarkets – had any scientific value. 

Japan agreed to abide by the ruling and canceled the 2014-15 Antarctic hunt. Its much smaller scientific whaling program in the northwest Pacific continues, while the killing of smaller whale species in coastal waters is not covered by the IWC ban.

But Japan’s whaling lobby has regrouped. A revised program could be submitted to the IWC as early as the end of the year, ahead of the body’s next meeting in May 2015, according to Morishita. Some believe it will reflect criticism that the Antarctic hunt involves killing too many whales.

"I feel like now that [ICJ’s] decision is actually good for Japan," Morishita said. "[The] assumption of the court is that Japan could, maybe, look at the new research plan and that it’s OK for Japan to propose a new plan which involves the killing of whales as long as that is meeting or that take account of the reasoning and conditions of the ICJ decision."

The effort has won the support of high-profile politicians, notably Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Their aim: an eventual return to sustainable commercial whaling.

"While respecting international law and scientific facts, it is necessary to continue the scientific whaling to get data needed on stocks in order to properly manage cetacean resources, so that it is then possible to look into restarting commercial whaling,” Abe told members of parliament this week. “I will step up efforts further to gain the understanding of the international community.”

Australia immediately called on Japan to respect the ICJ’s ruling, while New Zealand’s foreign minister, Murray McCully, described Abe’s comments as “unfortunate and unhelpful.” 

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