A Japanese whaling company, Kyodo Senpaku, has been hit by AU$1 million fine for hunting whales in Antarctic waters that Australia says is part of a marine sanctuary. The fine, ordered by an Australian federal court this week, is the equivalent of US$717,600.
The plaintiff in the case is the Australian branch of Humane Society International, which opposes Japan's practice of whaling in the Antarctic.
Environmentalists were pleased with the decision, but said that it was unclear whether or not Japan would continue its whaling program and remained skeptical of the science that Japan uses as justification for its whaling.
"I think the court case outcome is great news," said Clare Perry, the senior campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based environmental organization. "It seems clear that Japan, or at least the whaling company, Kyodo Senpaku, will not take any notice of that court case."
Perry said that she did not think that Japan would respond to the decision because it occurred in an Australian court, not a Japanese one. "But on the other hand, it's another nail in the coffin of whaling," she said.
Commercial whale hunting has been under a moratorium since 1986; that moratorium was agreed to in 1982 by the member countries of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), an intergovernmental organization that focuses on the conservation of whales and the regulation of their hunting by traditional indigenous groups.
However, according to Simon Brockington, the executive secretary to the IWC, individual countries, as sovereign nations, can give themselves the permits they need to carry out whale hunting under scientific grounds. That's what Japan has done.
"This has been the subject of quite considerable debate," Brockington said.
The last time Japan hunted whales in Antarctic waters, it killed 252 of the creatures, all of them minkes, according to data published by the IWC. That was during the Antarctic summer season of 2013-2014. (It also whales in the coastal waters around Japan and in the northwest Pacific, killing 224 cetaceans in those areas in 2013.) Japan didn't kill any whales in the Antarctic during the subsequent 2014-2015 season, following a ruling by the International Court of Justice, telling it to cease hunting activities. It's unclear whether they will resume the practice in Antarctica this coming season, which occurs during the northern hemisphere's winter.
Mark Simmonds, the senior marine scientist for Humane Society International, said his organization was pleased with the decision, and that they see it as "a further signal that what Japan is doing is not acceptable."
"We've believed for a long time that what Japan has really been doing has been a commercial take thinly disguised as a scientific research program," Simmonds said.
Japan's latest plan calls for them to take 333 minke whales a year in Antarctica. "What we're all anticipating, sadly now, is that Japan will return to Antarctica and will resume its whaling activities starting this December," Simmonds added.
Patrick Ramage, the director of the whale program for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said that Japan's whaling program has taken over 14,000 whales in Antarctica in the years following the moratorium on commercial whaling.
"The judgement, handed down by the Australian court, is very welcome," Ramage said. "It's one in a series in important rulings against Japan's needless and ill-conceived scientific whaling program. I think it's an important victory in principle. Whether it affects Japanese practices remains to be seen."
The Japanese company was not at the trial, according to Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at Australian National University College of Law in the country's capital. He said the company is also unlikely to pay the fine.
"Japan does not recognize Australian sovereignty over Antarctica, and as a result, any Australian law applying in the waters offshore that part of the Antarctic continent is not recognized by Japan and obviously [not] by Kyodo," Rothwell said.
The court ruled that the company violated Australia's Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which established the sanctuary.
Paul Wade, a biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, used to run its cetacean program, and has followed Japan's scientific whaling program. He said that he doesn't think Japan needs to kill the whales to accomplish the science it wants to do.
"Where they really just don't meet international standards of science, is that they haven't justified the need for lethal sampling to accomplish the science they're doing," he said. "It's very clear to us that they could accomplish just about everything that they are saying they're trying to do scientifically without lethal sampling."
"There's no other place," he added, "where people say, 'Oh, we have to kill the whales to do any research on them.'"
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