Wildlife Matters - Slaughter on the high seas

TOWARDS the end of March this year a fleet of four ships bearing boldly the words "research" docked at Shimonoseki in Western Japan after spending four months in the Antarctic Ocean. They were on a whaling mission, a mission that returned with 333 dead minke whales of which 207 were pregnant females.

Anti-whalers and conservationists were dismayed and horrified. This mission comes barely two years after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in 2014, in an action brought by Australia, that Japan was in breach of several provisions of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The IWC placed a moratorium on commercial whaling which took effect in 1986 and whale hunting is only allowed under a particular exemption found in Article VIII, paragraph 1, of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which reads as follows:

"Notwithstanding anything contained in this Convention, any Contracting Government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit, and the killing, taking, and treating of whales in accordance with the provisions of this Article shall be exempt from the operation of this Convention".

Japan has been indefatigable in justifying the hunting of whales (not just minke whales but other species as well) for scientific purposes in line with the article above. The facade for this (for almost 18 years) has been the Jarpa I and II (Japanese Whale Research Programme under Special Permit in the Antarctic) whaling programme. Under the programme, between 1987 and 2005, almost 10,000 whales have been killed (of that, more than 6,700 were minke whales). Some experts and environmental organisations believe that there has been very little contribution to whale science and consequently their management; despite the massive whale take and purported research spanning almost two decades.

Many experts in the field have argued that Japan's reliance on Article VIII is merely a smokescreen to continue its alleged cultural practice of consuming whale meat. The director-general of Japan's Fisheries Agency himself said a few years ago that "minke whale meat is prized because it is said to have a very good flavour and aroma when eaten as sashimi and the like" and that "the scientific whaling programme in the Southern Ocean was necessary to achieve a stable supply of minke whale meat". In the face of such blatant statements, it is hard to accept that whale meat supply is merely incidental to lethal whale hunting for scientific purposes.

The ICJ ruled that the Jarpa II programme had indeed violated and failed to conform to a number of the provisions of the IWC and was not scientific in nature. The ICJ further declared that Japan is to revoke the Jarpa II programme and terminate all whaling activities under it. Since the ICJ ruling is final and un-appealable, Japan reacted by saying that it would abide by the ICJ ruling and cease the Jarpa II programme. Anti-whalers breathed a sigh of relief. The euphoria didn't last; soon after the ICJ decision and promise to comply, Japan announced plans to resume whaling in the Southern Ocean. It materialised soon enough in the form of NEWREP-A (Research Plan for New Scientific Whale Research Programme in the Antarctic Ocean). It is technically a rehash of the ceased Jarpa II programme and will proceed on the basis of scientifically justified whaling; with a plan to hunt 333 minke whales a year for the next 12 years. The IWC's scientific committee had in fact already denounced NEWREP-A, stating that it found no scientific basis for the renewed killing of minke whales.

There are several implications arising from the decision to resume whaling by the Japanese in defiance of the ICJ:
» Over the next decade we will lose more than 4,000 minke whales on the pretext of science.
» The reliance of any aggrieved nation on the International Court of Justice to enforce Treaty/Convention obligations by a non-conforming nation is destabilised.
» That a nation may outwardly defy an ICJ ruling without necessarily a legal recourse at hand for such defiance.
» That any nation wishing to challenge the NEWREP-A programme is now disabled from doing so within the ICJ framework. In October last year Japan announced via a declaration at the United Nations that it no longer recognised the jurisdiction of the ICJ in matters pertaining to the "research on, or conservation, management or exploitation of, living resources of the sea". Political pressure can still be applied, but the question is who will apply it?

For me personally and I am sure for many of you, it is difficult to curb the strong emotions that arise when whales are killed mercilessly. Let us get one thing really clear; there is no humane way to kill a 30-foot 5-ton whale. Dr Harry D. Lillie, a physician on board a whaling ship in 1946, provides insight into a harpooned whale's agony – "If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck into its stomach and being made to pull a butcher's truck through the streets of London while it pours blood in the gutter, we shall have an idea of the present method of killing. The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream, the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it."

It is no less brutal today.

Preetha is an advocate and solicitor. She has spent many years in the environmental conservation arena. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com