Ban on Japanese whaling a major victory in conservation battle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 4:21am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 4:21am

The 28 years that Japan has ignored an international moratorium on whaling is about one-third of the typical lifespan of the giant mammal. Even when Antarctica's Southern Ocean Sanctuary was established in 1994, Japanese whalers thumbed their noses at the rules, using as justification for catching and killing more than 1,000 of the creatures each year a loophole that allowed scientific research. The International Court of Justice's ruling this week that the slaughter was less about biology than commercial fishing has finally brought hope of protection and an end to decades of diplomatic wrangling and sometimes violent confrontation with conservationists. But as long as the struggle has been, it is far from over; the nation continues to hunt in the northern Pacific Ocean and Iceland and Norway still flout the ban.

Japan has accepted the ruling, which cannot be appealed. It has done so with "regret and disappointment", though, prompting concern that it could turn its back on the judgment or even withdraw from associated maritime conventions. There is every danger of that with Japanese politics being so driven by nationalism. The cull was about supplying whale meat and although less than 1 per cent of the population regularly eat it, the issue has been tied up with culture, principles and pride.

Australia spearheaded the fight and was joined by New Zealand in pushing the case. Whales have for decades been protected by both countries, which have recognised that they hold a special place in nature. Being at the top of the marine food chain, it is crucial for the sake of ecosystems that they be kept from harm. Whales also have numerous similarities with humans, from living to a similar age and socialising in groups.

Whaling has driven several species to the brink of extinction. But while the moratorium has helped rejuvenate some populations, illegal commercial operations remain a threat. Japan has to honour the historic ruling. Other environmentally conscious governments now have a green light to begin legal proceedings to protect remaining threatened whales.