When is whale research not whale research? When you capture the whales, kill them and eat them. That was the essence of the International Court of Justice decision on March 31 that ordered a temporary halt to Japan’s annual slaughter of whales in the Antarctic. The Court concluded that the hunts are actually whaling expeditions, not scientific research as Japan has claimed for many years.
The U.N. court’s decision was a 12 to 4 majority among a panel of judges. It will not end whaling in Japan but it will put a serious damper in Japan’s already troubled whaling program. In reality, the demand for whale meat in Japan diminishes each year, and there are warehouses full of frozen whale meat that no one really seems to want. The Japanese government estimated there were over 4,000 tons in frozen storage at the end of 2012.
The International Whaling Commission ban of commercial whaling in 1986 left a loophole in which Japan was permitted to kill a certain number of whales every year for what Japan called scientific research. But the well-known practice of selling the meat from the hunt to specialty restaurants and grocery stores aroused the wrath of anti-whaling western nations such as Australia—which accused Japan of using the pretext of “scientific research” to cover-up commercial ventures.
The killing of whales, which are considered to be highly intelligent mammals by some, and are loved by many, has been bad for the public image of Japan. But the country’s Institute of Cetacean Research has been quick to point out that the research was needed and the whales were put down humanely, noting, “In fact, a large proportion of the whales taken are killed instantly by an explosive harpoon and for those cases when they are not, a secondary killing method (a second harpoon or high caliber rifle) ensures that the time to death is as rapid as possible.”
Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for the Japanese delegation to the ICJ, issued a statement, saying that Japan was “disappointed and regrets” that the validity of its research was not appreciated but “Japan will abide by the judgment.”
Japan had insisted for several years that its annual slaughter of over 800 minke whales and up to 50 endangered fin whales every year was necessary to examine the demographics and other characteristics of the whale population—and that this was necessary to measure the feasibility of possible resumption of sustainable commercial whaling. Many argued that the feasibility study itself was commercial whaling.
The court, in its lengthy ruling (PDF), concluded that Japan had failed to prove its pursuit of minke whales in Antarctic waters every winter was for scientific purposes or that Japan’s lethal investigative methods were necessary.
Every major newspaper and television station in Japan reported the news of the decision on the eve of March 31, Japan time. The Mainichi Shimbun pointed out that Japan would need to rethink its plans to resume commercial whaling but thankfully the ban would have little effect on those with a yen for eating whale, pointing out that “research whale” only accounted for 20 per cent of the meat circulating in Japan.
This is good news for the sea mammal gourmand. Whale specialty restaurants like Ganso Kujirya in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward are unlikely to be affected by the ban in the short term, and given the warehouse supplies Japan’s whale-eating culinary culture could survive even long after certain breeds of whale are extinct.
Ren Yabuki, of the NGO Life Investigation Agency, said that he hoped Japan would take the court decision as a chance to reflect deeply on its mistakes and its deceptive practices. He also noted that Japan uses up to $6 million of taxpayer money each year to sustain the industry, even as public support wanes.