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Undeterred by a legal setback, Japan has given signs that it intends to restart whale hunts in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica, claiming that the hunts are for scientific purposes –- but experts around the world aren’t buying it.
Whale experts and environmentalists outside Japan say that, even if the hunts are drastically reduced, the country uses the guise of research to effectively get around the moratorium on commercial whaling set in 1986 by the nations within the International Whaling Commission, Japan included.
Scientists do collect data about whales for IWC management issues, but "none of these questions require lethal research," said Phillip Clapham, who heads whale research at the U.S. National Marine Mammal Laboratory. "All can be answered with non-lethal techniques, notably photo-identification or genetic identification of individuals which -- unlike with a killed whale -- can be repeatedly resighted, thus gaining more and more data."
Japan's most recent signal came on July 8 from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He addressed the issue while visiting Australia, which had challenged Japan's Antarctic whaling program before the U.N.'s International Court of Justice.
Whaling deemed scientific by the IWC is allowed, but the court last March ruled that Japan's program was not structured to be scientific and ordered that it be halted. The initial euphoria by anti-whaling nations quickly gave way to a realization that the court was allowing Japan to restructure the program to possibly fit the scientific waiver provided by the IWC.
At a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Abe did not provide specifics but insisted Japan "will engage in research of whaling in order to collect the indispensable scientific information in order to manage the whale resources."
The only nation to hunt whales outside its territorial seas, Japan since 1986 has legally hunted 10,476 whales in the Southern Ocean, the vast majority of them minkes.
Clapham acknowledged that those numbers are unlikely to hurt the Southern Ocean population, which the IWC estimates at 515,000 minkes.
What bothers Clapham is that "whaling nations have said forever that they advocate sustainable whaling, and then they go on to ignore mounting evidence of population declines in the interests of profit."
Scott Baker, associate director of Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute, agreed. "The often disreputable behavior of the whaling industry in the past, and some whaling nations today, does not inspire much confidence in a good faith return to commercial whaling," he said.
The "sustainable whaling" argument also doesn't hold water with other experts, but for another reason. "If you think of whales as 'salmon', then sure, whaling could be allowed," said Trevor Branch, a fisheries researcher at the University of Washington. "Problem is, they're whales and most people now have a different ethical view of whether this is OK."
"In my opinion, the key issue is an ethical one, not an economic one," said Andrew Solow, director of the Marine Policy Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "Personally, I believe it is ethically wrong to harvest whales whether or not it can be done sustainably."
Japan also argues that whaling should be allowed as it has long been part of its culture. Besides the Southern Ocean whaling, it legally hunts around itscoastal waters in the same way that Norway and Iceland do.
So what's next?
Don't expect a return to commercial whaling any time soon given the strong opposition from the United States, Australia and many other nations.
An IWC management system does exist on paper that would typically set commercial catch limits at half a percent of population size. “So for minke whales in the Southern Ocean one would expect a catch limit of at least hundreds of whales, maybe a couple of thousand,” said Philip Hammond, a marine mammal biologist at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews.
But IWC members have yet to finalize the overall management rules, he added.
Moreover, any commercial quotas would require "estimates of abundance," said Baker, a member of the IWC scientific committee, and those for Antarctic minke whales "remain contentious".
Still, the ICJ itself left open the door to scientific whaling if a restructured hunt falls within its "reasonableness" standard, said Steven Freeland, a law professor at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, who followed the court case closely.
"The thresholds are high but not insurmountable," Freeland said, and a revised scientific program "could still conceivably include some killing of whales."