Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Joji Morishita

Joji Morishita

Dennis Normile/Science

Japanese Official Explains Grounds for Resuming Scientific Whaling

TOKYO—Japan's delegate to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) said today that a recent decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that seemingly went against this nation's whaling activities is actually pretty good news. "I feel now that the ICJ decision actually is good for Japan," Joji Morishita said at a press conference. He explained that the ruling lends support to Japan's position on research whaling and the proper role of the IWC.

On 31 March, the ICJ, based in The Hague in the Netherlands, ordered Japan to cease its Antarctic research whaling program, known as JARPA II, because it was "not for purposes of scientific research."

“The evidence does not establish that the program’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives,” the court said. The decision was seen as a huge victory for Australia, which took Japan to the court in 2010 arguing that the research program was thinly veiled commercial whaling and thus in violation of a moratorium adopted by the IWC in 1982. Japan had taken advantage of a clause in the IWC convention that allows a country to grant itself permits to hunt whales for research purposes.

Morishita said a close reading of the court's decision has left Japan an opening. He said that Japan has long argued that the IWC should remain faithful to its original objectives, which include both conservation and sustainable use of whale stocks. Australia had argued that amendments to the convention had shifted IWC's focus to conservation. But the court ruled that amendments could emphasize one or another objective but "cannot alter [the IWC's] object and purpose." The court also ruled that research whaling that meets the conditions of the IWC convention is not subject to the moratorium, that lethal methods of research are permissible, and that the meat resulting from capturing whales can be sold—all points Australia contested.

As his trump card, Morishita pointed to a paragraph in the ruling that states: "It is to be expected that Japan will take account of the reasoning and conclusions contained in this judgment as it evaluates the possibility of granting any future permits" for research whaling.

Revamping the Antarctic research whaling program to meet the court's criteria is exactly what Japan will do, Morishita said. Details will be spelled out in a plan to be drawn up by the end of this year for submission to the IWC with the aim of resuming research whaling in the 2015 to 2016 season.

Critics are skeptical that Japan will be able to come up with convincing scientific justifications. In its decision, the court “had a whole range of criticisms,” Naoko Funahashi, the Japan representative for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told ScienceInsider. "Addressing all of those criticisms in a new plan will be impossible," she said.