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Victory for Whales at the International Court of Justice

Vassili Papastavrou
Published: Wednesday 2 April 2014
Japan’s 2013-2014 Antarctic season is now over and next year should be the first for more than a century when the whales of the Southern Ocean are left in peace with the slaughter ended.
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It was a hugely ambitious decision by the government of Australia to take Japan to the International Court of Justice over its whaling in the Antarctic.

And Patrick Ramage and I watched in the court as it paid off spectacularly with victory for the whales.

Japan’s 2013-2014 Antarctic season is now over and next year should be the first for more than a century when the whales of the Southern Ocean are left in peace with the slaughter ended. Japan was a latecomer into Antarctic whaling and by the time it started much of the damage had already been done by countries such as the US and UK which all stopped long ago. From three quarters of a million blue whales in this area only a few thousand remain.

But unlike other countries, Japan chose to continue whaling in this remote area. Japan’s program of ‘research’ has continued since the moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1986, with more than 10,000 mink whales killed in the Southern Ocean. Even the decision by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to declare the Southern Ocean a sanctuary for whales was not enough to stop Japan’s whaling. Twenty-three nations voted in favor of the sanctuary at the 1994 meeting of the IWC and only Japan voted against.

The judgment of the court may seem long but it is disarmingly straightforward.

Paragraph 247 contains the judgment – a simple decision that Japan has failed to meet three binding decisions of the IWC simply because the special permits do not fall within the provisions of Article VIII (the provision in the IWC convention regarding ‘scientific whaling’).  Therefore the court decided that Japan should revoke all extant permits for its ‘scientific whaling’ in the Antarctic.

It doesn’t seem long ago that I was in the court, listening to the arguments of Australia and Japan in turn last June, sitting on the uncomfortable seats in the gallery above. Today, the judgment is clearly very uncomfortable for Japan but it also presents a huge opportunity. It is time for Japan to re-cast its research on whales in the Southern Ocean through non-lethal means.

Now, we need to see the best science Japan has to offer, designed to address the gaps in our knowledge in this remote area. Japan could join the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, and collaborate over studying whales humanely in just the same way that both countries do in other disciplines of Antarctic science.

It's said that victory finds a thousand fathers. There are many committed organizations and individuals around the world who helped secure this exciting win for whales. Anyone directly involved will readily acknowledge the work of the global whale team of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. This day would not have been achieved without our decade of committed effort, and none of it would have been possible without you.

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ABOUT Vassili Papastavrou

Vassili is a whale biologist on the IFAW Whale team.  He has studied sperm whales in the Indian Ocean, the Azores, the Galapagos Islands and the Southern Ocean. 

The research was conducted using sailing vessels and acoustics to find and follow groups of animals. He helped set up a whale watching project (and designing scientific research that could be conducted around the project) based on the island of Mull in Scotland which focused on minke whales and has been involved in the development and appropriate management of whale watching around the world. 

He has published papers on the feeding ecology and diving behaviour of sperm whales, minke whale distribution, many aspects of sustainability and the animal welfare implications of Japan’s ‘scientific whaling’.

Vassili has attended the meetings of the International Whaling Commission since 1994 as a representative of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. 

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