After a judgment by an international court pressured Japan to stop hunting whales in Antarctica for a year, the country is scheduled to send whaling ships there again on Tuesday — resuming its position as the only country whaling in the icy Southern Ocean, according to the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
Japan plans to kill 333 minke whales each year for 12 years, a third of the number of whales it previously killed annually in Antarctica, in what government officials insist is a scientific research venture, not a commercial meat operation.
Large-scale whaling in Japan began after World War II, when meat was scarce, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a U.K.-based nonprofit. The Japanese government heavily subsidizes the industry, although, the organization says, demand for whale meat has fallen significantly over the past few decades.
Japan is not the only country with an active interest in whaling. Although an international moratorium on whaling was put into effect in 1986, Iceland and Norway continue commercial whaling. Whale hunting for research is regarded as separate from commercial whaling and is unaffected by the moratorium.
Patrick Ramage, the whale program director at International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, said minke whales were historically considered too small to be commercially viable for whalers. Many countries have “worked their way down from the blue whale through the fin whale, humpback whale and other species. It’s now the little guy — minke whale — that Japan is targeting.”
Australia took Japan to the United Nations International Court of Justice in The Hague over its Antarctic whaling activities. Last year the court ruled in favor of Australia and ordered Japan to halt its special permit program in the Antarctic, known as JARPA II. The court, which found that Japan was using its scientific research program to disguise commercial whaling, said that JARPA II involved the killing of 3,600 minke whales over several years and that “the scientific output to date appears limited.”
Japan halted its whaling operations in Antarctica because of the court's decision. But rather than let its Antarctic whaling operation fade away, Japan has apparently reinvented it with a program called the New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean (PDF), which it plans to launch on Tuesday.
An IWC spokeswoman said that when the commission’s scientific committee reviewed Japan’s newly named plan, “they didn’t agree whether the research Japan was proposing required lethal research or whether you could do it using nonlethal methods, for example, DNA.”
But anti-whaling activists say Japan is merely using the name change to continue whale hunting.
“In the absence of an agreed [minke whale] population estimate and with serious questions, both legal and scientific … Japan’s bureaucrats are nonetheless proceeding in returning to slaughter in the name of science in Antarctic waters this coming season,” said Ramage.
As populations of fish and other marine food sources decline worldwide because of overharvesting, various nations have increasingly looked southward to Antarctica’s less exploited and relatively plentiful waters. Although many countries consider the Southern Ocean a conservation area, others see it as a wide-open food resource.
A few weeks ago, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources — a commission of 25 countries established to conserve Antarctic marine life — failed to reach an agreement about establishing marine protected areas in Antarctic waters after Russia refused to sign on to the measure.
“The minke whale population that is being hunted is considered to be sustainable,” said the IWC representative. “But obviously, it comes down to the numbers being hunted.”
With wire services