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What? Japan Has Decided to Resume Whaling in Antarctica

02/12/2015 12:03 GMT | Updated 30/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Today Japan's whaling boats have taken to the high seas of the Southern Ocean to resume their kill of Antarctic minke whales after a pause of only one year.

In March 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Japan's then whaling programme in the Southern Ocean was illegal, rejecting Japan's claim that such whaling was for scientific purposes and hence covered by Article VIII of the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling. At the time of the ruling, Japan stated that it would comply with the court's instruction to desist. So, there was no whaling in Antarctica last Austral summer for the first time in nearly 100 years. However, it soon became clear that Japan intended to resume its whaling with a revised 'research plan' which it said would take the details of the ICJ criticisms into account.

It is not widely understood that IWC member nations do not require the permission of the IWC to set their own research quotas under Article VIII. Therefore, Japan can simply set its own quota without approval, but such plans and results are scrutinised by IWC bodies. The new plan - named NEWREP-A (perhaps to underscore it was something novel) - was duly reviewed by an independent scientific panel set up by the IWC. The panel, which met in Tokyo in February, found that Japan had not made a case for killing whales for research. Japan next presented NEWREP-A to the IWC's full Scientific Committee in May. The Scientific Committee includes scientists working for the Japanese Government and, inevitably, it returned a mixed verdict. That said, many scientists agreed with the key finding of the IWC's independent panel, reaffirming the view that Japan's argument for killing whales on scientific grounds was weak.

Then things went rather quiet for several months - or so it appeared from a distance. The public silence was shattered quite suddenly in October with Japan's declaration to the United Nations that it would no longer be bound by ICJ jurisdiction regarding living marine resources. The result of which allows Japan to sidestep the ruling or any future rulings of the UN's highest court just after the country was given a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

On Friday 27th November (the day after Thanksgiving in the USA and similarly a very busy 'Black Friday' there and elsewhere), Japan quietly issued notice to IWC member nations that it would implement NEWREP-A and return to whale killing in the far south. Its communications were also posted on the IWC website for all to see. Interestingly, in these documents Japan refers to the 'proponents' of the research as if they were somehow separate researchers rather than acting for the Government of Japan. In many resulting press stories it was stated that Japan was cutting its take by two thirds but, in fact, Japan took fewer than 333 minke whales in Antarctica in each of its last few whaling seasons. (333 is only a reduction if compared to the quotas - rather than the recent catches - that Japan awarded itself under its previous Antarctic research plan.)

So what does all of this mean? It means that for some reason Japan holds whaling to be so important that it will risk further international criticism and condemnation to pursue it. But this is of course about more than just whaling. Years of scientific arguments and a ruling from the UN's highest judicial body have failed to sway Japan from this course of action. Historian, Jeff Kingston, a keen observer of Japan who lives in Tokyo and teaches at Temple University, describes this decision as a 'major blunder on Japan's part because it undermines its rule-of-law diplomacy'. He adds that Japan 'is exempting itself from the same rule of law it otherwise assiduously upholds.'

As a species we have to find wise and humane means to manage and share our limited resources; hence the big and vitally important climate conference in Paris this week. There have to be rules and the bodies that oversee these rules have to be treated with respect. The relevant international body in this case, the IWC, agreed to a global moratorium on commercial whaling a full 33 years ago, and Japan and its allies have fought against this ever since. Japan has significant marine interests but a poor record on marine conservation. For example, it recently also blocked new attempts to protect sharks. It is not enough for the global community to welcome Japan as an economic and defence partner (and various such negotiation are in play); it must also become a full and responsible partner in ocean governance.

Since Friday, New Zealand and Australian ministers, and United States administrators have now spoken out, but the nations of the European Union have said nothing. Humane Society International calls on all the whale-loving nations of the world to speak out strongly and make it clear to Japan that its actions are totally unacceptable.