UN Court Orders Japan to End Antarctic Whale Hunt
Photograph of a whale on the deck of the factory ship Nisshin Maru in Antarctic waters.
Originally designed to live on land, marine mammals are a diverse, charismatic group of animals that include more than 120 species. The animals share key characteristics of land mammals. They have hair, breathe air, give birth to live young, which feed off mother's milk when young. They have warm bodies and usually thick blubber to keep their body temperatures high. The bottlenose dolphin is probably the most widely recognized marine mammal, easily spotted just offshore from beaches around the world. Small groups of 20 or less can live in close proximity to shorelines, but groups living more offshore can reach several hundred. Bottlenose dolphin calves stay with their mothers for up to six years, learning how to hunt and become good dolphin citizens. Full-grown dolphins reach eight to 12 feet in length and can weigh up to 1,430 pounds. The bottlenose dolphin is protected in U.S. waters.
What makes them "marine" depends on the animal. They either live mostly in the sea or, like polar bears, depend on the ocean for food. The largest in the group are whales -- including humpback whales. These massive animals reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. To maintain their weight, the animals feed on tons of krill and fish. They neared extinction due to whaling, but have recovered somewhat since a 1966 moratorium on whaling was introduced.
While polar bears live mostly on land or ice, they are excellent swimmers and have been known to swim up to 45 miles a day. The massive animals, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, hunt mostly seals. In recent years, biologists have observed that the bears are swimming now more than ever as melting stretches the distances between Arctic ice flows. Because they depend on sea ice to hunt seals, the polar bear is considered threatened as global warming melts and thins ice in this region.
This member of the weasel family is also the smallest marine mammal, with females weighing about 60 pounds and males weighing up to 90 pounds. They may be small, but they're also clever. They're the only marine mammals known to use tools. They use stones to break open clams and store food they gather in the folds of their armpits! Another feature that sets them apart is their lack of blubber. These marine mammals depend mostly on their fur to stay warm. That feature makes them particularly vulnerable to oil spills, which can compromise their fur's insulating effect.
Immediately recognizable by its long tusks and whiskers, the sea walrus is a hefty, flippered member of the Odobenidae family and is, in fact, the last living member of this group. Since both the males and females have big tusks and not much for teeth, the animals feed by sucking up shellfish from the ocean floor. So, just what are those tusks for? The longer they are (they grow to be up to four feet long in males), the higher an animal is ranked in the group. Males attack each other with their tusks to establish dominance. The ivory appendages are also handy for poking holes in the winter ice and for helping the animals pull themselves out of the water.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle herbivores that live in marshy areas in tropical and subtropical waters. The average adult manatee can weigh up 1,200 pounds and is around 10 feet long. Because of their slow metabolism, these animals can only survive in warm waters. Due to the unusually long, cold winter this year in part of the southeastern United States, populations of manatees throughout Florida were devastated. During the day, manatees usually like to stay close to the surface. At night, manatees will often sleep about three to 10 feet below sea level. This is why these gentle animals are so often accidentally injured, maimed or killed by passing boats.
Found up and down the North American coastlines, these marine mammals spend half of their lives swimming. Although they can reach up to six feet in length and weigh around 180 pounds, when on land and in plain sight harbor seals may not be easy to spot. Their spotted brown or tan fur allows harbor seals to blend in with sand and rocks. Unlike their very vocal relatives -- sea lions and elephant seals -- harbor seals are quiet creatures that make little noise. They like to hang out on beaches, sand bars and rocks during low tide to bask in the sun and sleep, but they never go far from the water. At the slightest sign of danger, they will quickly slip back under the waves. These expert swimmers have been known to plunge to depths of more than 1,600 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes.
The UN's top court on Monday ordered Japan to end its annual Antarctic whale hunt, saying in a landmark ruling that the program was a commercial activity disguised as science.
"Japan shall revoke any existant authorization, permit or license granted in relation to JARPA II (research program) and refrain from granting any further permits," said the International Court of Justice's Judge Peter Tomka.
Agreeing with Australia, which in 2010 hauled Japan before the Hague-based ICJ in a bid to end whale hunting in the Southern Ocean, Tomka said that "special permissions granted by Japan are not for purposes of scientific research."
"The evidence does not establish that the program's design and implementation are reasonable in relation to its stated (scientific) objectives," Tomka said.
While Norway and Iceland have commercial whaling programs in spite of a 1986 International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium, Japan insisted its program was scientific, while admitting that the resulting meat ended up on plates back home.
Tokyo was accused of exploiting a legal loophole in the 1986 ban on commercial whaling that allowed the practice to collect scientific data.
Conservation groups voiced happiness at the ruling, which Japan said it would respect despite "deep disappointment".
"As a state that respects the rule of law… and as a responsible member of the global community, Japan will abide by the decision of the court," chief negotiator Koji Tsuruoka told reporters outside the United Nations' top court.
Australia's lawyer Bill Campbell said he welcomed the decision and repeated his hope that it would not affect relations between the two countries.
"The decision of the court today, important as it is, has given us the opportunity to draw a line under the legal dispute and move on," Campbell said.
Australia said that since 1988 Japan has slaughtered more than 10,000 whales under the program, putting the Asian nation in breach of international conventions and its obligation to preserve marine mammals and their environment.
Pete Bethune, a former activist with militant conservation group Sea Shepherd who spent five months in a Japanese prison for his protests, broke down after the verdict.
"Today is a great day for justice," he told journalists at the court.
"This decision sends a clear message to governments around the world that the exploitation of animals will no longer be tolerated and animals must be protected at the highest level," said Claire Bass, head of wildlife campaigns at the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
"All eyes are now on Japan to respect this decision," she said.
Photograph of a whale on the deck of the factory ship Nisshin Maru in Antarctic waters.
The court ruled overwhelmingly in favor of Australia in the case, which the country launched in 2010.
Clare Perry of the Environmental Investigation Agency said the ruling "lays to rest, once and for all, the grim travesty of Japan's so-called 'scientific' whaling."
"Next, the world needs to focus its attention on Japan's whaling in the North Pacific, where it continues to issue permits to kill up to 500 whales annually in hunts using the same 'scientific' clause that has now been condemned beyond dispute by the international court."
While Japan said its research program was aimed at studying the viability of whale hunting, the ICJ found that it had failed to examine ways of doing such research without killing whales, or at least while killing fewer whales.
Japan has consistently defended the practice of eating whale meat as a culinary tradition and vowed it would "never stop whaling."
In April last year it announced its whaling haul from the Southern Ocean was at a record low because of "unforgivable sabotage" by Sea Shepherd activists.
Sea Shepherd had called the ICJ case make-or-break for whales in the Southern Ocean.
Established in 1945 to rule in disputes between countries, the ICJ is the UN's highest judicial body and the only one of five principal UN bodies not located in New York.