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The largest animal on Earth is proving that wildlife protections work.
By Joe Roman
One of the most important global conservation events of the past year was something that didn't happen. For the first time since 2002, Iceland — one of just three countries that still allow commercial whaling — didn't hunt any whales, even though its government had approved whaling permits in early 2019.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
New research finds that the western South Atlantic humpback population is well on its way to recovering from the devastating impacts of commercial whaling.
Despite a global ban on commercial whaling more than 30 years ago, Japan has caught about 200-1,200 whales every year since 1987—including pregnant and juvenile ones—under the exception of "scientific research." Opponents have fiercely criticized this research program as just a cover so the whales can be killed for human consumption.
Now, the national broadcaster NHK reports that the Japanese government wants to fully resume commercial whaling by pulling out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Commercial whaling was paused in 1986 by the IWC because some whales were hunted to near extinction.
Japan is proposing a slew of rule changes at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Florianópolis, Brazil this week that conservationists worry would ultimately lift a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.
Japan, which launched a "scientific whaling" program in 1987 as a loophole to the moratorium, has killed more than 15,600 whales in the Antarctic since the ban (including juvenile and pregnant minke whales), according to a report released last month by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).
For years, the Japanese government has hunted whales under the name of "scientific research." Now officials are angling to resume commercial whaling at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting this September in Brazil.
At the meeting, officials "will propose setting a catch quota for species whose stocks are recognized as healthy by the IWC scientific committee," Hideki Moronuki, an official in charge of whaling at Japan's fisheries agency, told Agence France-Presse.
Japan's whaling vessels returned to port with 333 minke whales on Friday after its months-long Antarctic hunt.
The Fisheries Ministry said the whales were killed in the name of science.
Ninety percent of the minke whales hunted and killed each year in Norwegian waters are female and " almost all" of them are pregnant, according to a documentary aired earlier this month on NRK, a government-owned public broadcasting company.
In a stunning victory for the whales, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague announced their binding decision today in the landmark case of Australia v. Japan, ruling that Japan’s JARPA II whaling program in the Antarctic is not for scientific purposes and ordering that all permits given under JARPA II be revoked. The news was applauded and celebrated by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society USA and Sea Shepherd Australia, both of which have directly intervened against Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean.
Greenpeace International is another organization that has been campaigning against whaling for more than 30 years. In this 1992 photo Greenpeace protested against the factory ship Nisshin Maru in the Southern Ocean. © Greenpeace / Robin Culley
Representing Sea Shepherd in the courtroom to hear the historic verdict were Captain Alex Cornelissen, executive director of Sea Shepherd Global and Geert Vons, director of Sea Shepherd Netherlands. They were accompanied by Sea Shepherd Global’s Dutch legal counsel.
The case against Japan was heard by the ICJ in July of last year to decide whether Japan is in breach of its international obligations in implementing the JARPA II “research” program in the Southern Ocean, and to demand that Japan cease implementation of JARPA II and revoke any related permits until Japan can make assurances that their operations conform with international law.
In a vote of 12 to four, the ICJ ruled that the scientific permits granted by Japan for its whaling program were not scientific research as defined under International Whaling Commission regulations. It ordered that Japan revoke the scientific permits given under JARPA II and refrain from granting any further permits under that program.
Prior to the verdict, there had been some speculation that the ICJ would not permit the hunting of endangered fin and humpback whales, but it would compromise and allow the hunting of minke whales. However, it has been Sea Shepherd’s contention all along that—no matter the species—no whales should be killed, especially in a sanctuary. Sanctuary means “a place of refuge or safety; a nature reserve” where animals are protected. To allow killing in an internationally designated sanctuary is to make a mockery of international agreements made by those countries who established the sanctuary in 1994. At that time, 23 countries supported the agreement and Japan was the only International Whaling Commission (IWC) member to oppose it.
Even the Ambassador from Japan to the U.S., Kenichiro Sasae, during a public meeting in Los Angeles in Dec. 2013 attended by representatives of Sea Shepherd USA, had this to say about whales and whaling: “As an individual, I like whales and if you go out and see the whales, there is no reason for us to kill this lovely animal. But it’s history and it’s politics, I would say. There are a small number of Japanese people still trying to get this won. But mainstream Japanese are not eating whale anymore.” At the same meeting, Ambassador Sasae stated that Japan will abide by the ICJ ruling.
“With today’s ruling, the ICJ has taken a fair and just stance on the right side of history by protecting the whales of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and the vital marine ecosystem of Antarctica, a decision that impacts the international community and future generations,” said Captain Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd Global.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s international volunteer crew stood on the frontlines in the hostile and remote waters of Antarctica for eight years and then Sea Shepherd Australia took up that gauntlet for the last two years and will keep confronting Japanese whalers in Antarctica until we can once and for all bring an end to the killing in this internationally designated “safety zone” for whales.
Over the years, Sea Shepherd has been the only organization to directly intervene against Japan’s illegal commercial whaling conducted under the guise of research, with their claims of research globally questioned. Indeed, Sea Shepherd has been the only thing standing between majestic whales and the whalers’ harpoons, as these internationally protected species—many of them pregnant—migrate through Antarctic waters each year.
“Though Japan’s unrelenting harpoons have continued to drive many species of whales toward extinction, Sea Shepherd is hopeful that in the wake of the ICJ’s ruling, it is whaling that will be driven into the pages of the history books,” Cornelissen said.
“Despite the moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan has continued to claim the lives of thousands of the gentle giants of the sea in a place that should be their safe haven,” said Sea Shepherd Founder, Captain Paul Watson. “Sea Shepherd and I, along with millions of concerned people around the world, certainly hope that Japan will honor this ruling by the international court and leave the whales in peace.”
Sea Shepherd Global will have the ships prepared to return to the Southern Ocean in Dec. 2014 should Japan choose to ignore this ruling. If the Japanese whaling fleet returns, Sea Shepherd crew will be there to uphold this ruling against the pirate whalers of Japan.
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