An Australian court has fined a Japanese firm 1 million Australian dollars ($700,000) for hunting whales near Antarctica.
The fine was issued against Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha, a government-backed whaling company that operates Japan's hunting ships, for repeatedly breaching a 2008 court injunction to stop killing whales inside Australia’s Antarctic whale sanctuary, which extends 200 nautical miles from Australian-declared territory in the Antarctic.
In 2008, the anti-whaling activist group Humane Society International (HSI) successfully took Kyodo to court in Australia, where it was decided the whale hunt was against Australian law. But Japan said Australia has no authority to enforce its domestic laws on the high seas, and Kyodo continued whaling in the protected waters of the Southern Ocean.
For years, environmental groups have used the courts to try to stop Japanese whaling activities.
In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) put in place a moratorium that banned commercial whaling, but allowed small-scale whale hunts carried out for research purposes. Japan has since maintained that killing about 1,000 whales per year is necessary to research the whales' breeding, migratory, and other habits.
In 2010, Australia filed a case with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), arguing that Japan's Southern Ocean whale hunt is commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research.
In a major victory for Australia and environmental groups, the world court ruled that Japan’s "scientific" whaling was indeed illegal under international law and must end.
After the ruling, Japan canceled its 2014-2015 Antarctic hunt. But in June 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "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."
This June, Japan announced plans to resume whaling in the Antarctic this year, with a goal of catching 333 minke whales annually between 2015 and 2027.
Japan makes no secret of the fact that meat from whales – nominally killed for research – is processed into food and sold. Japan claims that eating whale is a local tradition.
"It is a pity that that part of Japanese culture is not understood by the international community," Abe told a parliamentary committee in June 2014.
Critics of Japan's whale research program hope the Australian government will use Wednesday’s ruling to intensify diplomatic efforts to ensure Japan doesn’t resume whaling in the Southern Ocean.
"If whaling in Antarctic waters does resume this year, as we fear it will, and Kyodo continues to ignore the injunction, we ask that the Australian government raises this with the Japanese government to ensure that Australian laws for the protection of whales are observed," HSI’s Australia director, Michael Kennedy, told the Guardian.
"The onus for stopping Japan from returning to Antarctica to slaughter whales this year now lies directly with the Australian government," said Jeff Hansen, managing director of anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.