A Whale of a Decision

Friday 4th April 2014

On the last day of March the International Court of Justice took a momentous decision. It ruled that Japan’s whaling activities in the Southern Oceans were commercial and not scientific. 

The Court therefore judged that the killing of thousands of Minke whales and a small number of Fin whales near Antarctica was in contravention of international law and should halt immediately.  Japan has agreed to abide by the ruling.  This is important for bugs, including the Narwhal louse, Grey whale barnacle and Bone-eating snot flower.

International Court of Justice operates under the auspices of the UN and only deals with disputes between countries, it issues between two and four judgments a year. Therefore a ruling on a matter that relates to wildlife and the environment is a very unusual and noteworthy moment.

The ruling in itself does not represent a great step forward in terms of how justice systems respect and protect the lives and survival of other species on the planet, but it is interesting to note the great weight placed on the question of how many whales needed to be killed, if any, to achieve the spurious scientific objectives of Japan’s Antarctic whaling programme.

The case centred on the “International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling” that was created in 1946 and has 88 member countries, including Japan and Australia.  The Convention bans whaling, except that undertaken as aboriginal subsistence whaling or undertaken for the purposes of scientific research.  In the latter case a country can submit a research plan to the International Whaling Commission and then issue permits to catch whales.  The IWC member countries can comment on the research plan and the country submitting the plan must consider these comments, but the IWC cannot prevent the issuing of permits.

Australia initiated the legal action claiming that Japan’s research plan was a smokescreen to allow the continued supply of Japan’s domestic whale meat market.  The court considered very carefully the numbers of whales that Japan was killing, if this was necessary to gathering the data needed for the aims of the research and if it was possible that this data could be collected through non-lethal methods.  While the court agreed that Japan’s programme did fall in the parameters of ‘scientific research’,  Japan was unable to adequately justify the numbers of whales it would need to catch and hence the permits it had issued for the killing of the whales were not for ‘for purposes of scientific research’.  Therefore the whaling was in contravention of the convention because catching whales for commercial purposes, catching fin whales using a factory ship and whaling in the Antarctic had all been outlawed.

While Japan has agreed to comply with the court order to cease the whaling, it is still whaling ‘for purposes of scientific research’ in the North Pacific and can of course submit a new plan for restarting scientific whaling in the Antarctic – it could also of course leave the Convention, in which case none of the rules would apply to its whaling activities.

There can be little doubt that the ruling of the ICJ places a great new emphasis on the work of the International Whaling Commission.  Any country submitting future research plans is likely to have to pay much greater attention to justifying the use of lethal measures and numbers killed.  Members of the IWC scientific committee will be emboldened in challenging the justifications and whaling nations will have to take the views expressed much more seriously.  It will also be interesting to see if another country comes forward and challenges the North Pacific whaling activities of Japan in the ICJ.

Fewer whales will be killed in the next few years as a result of Australia’s action and it is likely that it will be impossible to justify the killing of large numbers of whales for science in the future.

Why is this relevant to bugs?

Firstly, whales are an important part of the marine ecosystem, recycling nutrients in the upper layers of the oceans – which supports a great many marine invertebrates.  Secondly whales are a great habitat for invertebrates, each species of whale saved will save several species of invertebrate – here are some amazing examples.

Narwhal louse (Cyamus monodontis) – a small crustacean that lives around the base of the long tusk of the Narwhal.

Grey whale barnacle (Cryptolepas rhachianecti) – big barnacles that live on the skin of Grey whales and Humpback whales, where they benefit from a stream of food rich water and comparative safety from predators.

Boneeating snot flower (Osedax mucofloris) – one of several stomachless, sea-floor worms that live in the bones of decaying whales, absorbing fats and other nutrients.

I am particularly proud to have worked closely with two of the key campaigners who maintained the momentum and support of the Australian public for their Government’s action.  Alexia Wellbelove leads on the Humane Society International’s marine campaigns and Darren Kindleysides, Director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society.  Well done to them and all who contributed to this significant achievement.