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By Elaine Lies
TOKYO, April 1 Japan could try to rescue its
Antarctic whaling programme by sharply reducing catch quotas
after the highest U.N. court ordered a halt, rejecting Tokyo's
argument that the catch was for scientific purposes and not
mainly for human consumption.
The judgment by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was
a blow to Japan's decades-old "scientific whaling" programme,
although Tokyo, which said it would abide by the ruling, might
be able to resume Antarctic whaling if it devises a new, more
persuasive programme that requires killing whales.
"We want to accept this from a position that respects the
international legal order," Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told
reporters. "We want to properly consider our country's response
after carefully examining the contents of the ruling."
The ICJ agreed with plaintiff Australia's position that the
scientific research resulting from the Antarctic whaling did not
justify the number of whales killed.
Japan has long maintained that most whale species are in no
danger of extinction and scientific whaling is necessary to
manage what it sees as a marine resource that, after World War
Two, was an important protein source for an impoverished nation.
But with its whaling fleet in need of refurbishing and
consumer interest in whale meat low, some observers said the
court ruling might give the government the chance to abandon an
expensive programme - and improve its international standing.
One of the most likely possibilities, though, is that Tokyo
will submit a revamped research whaling programme for approval
by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which oversees
international management of whales.
"One thing Japan needs to do is make its scientific goals
match the number of whales that it takes," said Masayuki
Komatsu, formerly Japan's chief whaling negotiator.
"It's actually okay to hunt even more whales. But what will
happen is that the number of whales taken will decrease," added
Komatsu, now a visiting research professor at the International
Centre for the Study of East Asian Development.
More than half of IWC members oppose whaling, a situation
that has long prompted Japan to call the body "dysfunctional,"
so obtaining approval for any new proposals could be tough,
Japanese media said.
The U.N. tribunal said no further licences should be issued
for scientific whaling, in which animals are first examined for
research purposes before the meat is sold..
"The research objectives must be sufficient to justify the
lethal sampling," said Presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia.
Japan also conducts separate hunts in the northern Pacific,
while its fishermen engage in small-scale coastal whaling. An
annual dolphin slaughter has also drawn harsh global criticism.
Japan signed a 1986 ban on whaling but has continued to hunt
up to 850 minke whales in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean,
as well as smaller numbers of fin and humpback whales, citing a
1946 treaty that permits killing the giant mammals for research.
The research whaling is needed to assess whether whale
stocks are recovering from overfishing, Japan has said.
Whaling was once widespread around the world but Japan is
now one of only a handful of countries, including Iceland and
Norway, that keep it up on a large scale.
But despite the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself
hails from one of Japan's whaling regions, the ruling might not
be entirely unwelcome in some parts of the government, said Jun
Morikawa, who has written on whaling and politics in Japan.
"It was an unexpected decision but if they say they accept
it there are no other options," said Morikawa, a professor at
Rakuno Gakuen University in the northern island of Hokkaido.
"I get the impression that a lot of people in government may
be relieved ... It gives them a chance to stop, they can say
that Japan fought hard but now needs to accept the result."
(Writing by Linda Sieg and Elaine Lies,; Editing by Paul Tait
and Clarence Fernandez)