Whaling

The United Nations' International Court of Justice has ordered Japan to end its annual Antarctic whale hunt, saying in a landmark ruling that the program was a commercial activity disguised as science. (Glenn Lockitch / AFP/Getty Images / March 31, 2014)

It was well known for many years that Japan's "scientific whaling" program was a sham, designed to get around the international moratorium on hunting whales. Almost no research on the animals came from Japanese scientists; instead, whale meat kept showing up in restaurants and school lunches. Finally, Australia, a whaling country until 1978 and now an avid opponent, called Japan's bluff over the hundreds of whales it killed each year in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary surrounding Antarctica.

This week, the United Nations International Court of Justice sided with Australia, officially declaring Japan's hunt ineligible for the scientific exemption from the moratorium. Japan has said it will abide by the court's decision. It could do so by ending all whaling, or by funding real research, or by whaling outside the sanctuary.

But whaling is an expensive relic of Japan's past that does the nation little good now. The government heavily subsidizes whale capture, at the behest of a very small but influential group of older citizens who are trying to keep the tradition of whale meat consumption alive and who have resisted, out of national pride, global efforts to restrict the practice. But their efforts are failing. Younger generations of Japanese are not interested in eating whale.

This week, several Icelandic legislators proposed a study of how much whaling contributed to their nation's economy, and whether the benefits outweighed losses in tourism and international standing. Iceland catches fewer than 200 whales a year, but most of those are endangered fin whales. Norway also kills hundreds of whales each year, under a loophole known as the legal objection, which means it simply refuses to comply with the moratorium.

Ironically, the International Whaling Commission, which first imposed the moratorium, could help end the big whale hunts by amending its rules to allow more whaling. Its current restrictions are based more on political negotiation, such as its exception for indigenous peoples with long histories of whale hunting, than on science. A more scientific approach would make clear distinctions, for instance, between the hunting of endangered species and those with healthy populations.

The commission's aim should be to sustain whale species worldwide rather than to pass moral judgment on nations where hunting whales might be just as acceptable as hunting deer is in the United States. Science-based catch limits on whales, with an absolute moratorium on the killing of endangered species, would work better with such nations as Japan and Norway than a flat moratorium with leviathan-sized loopholes.