On Monday, the United Nations International Court of Justice is set to rule on a request by Australia to bar Japan from whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. In 2010, Australia instituted proceedings against Japan at The Hague, arguing that Japan’s whaling program violates Article 8 of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Currently, the Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research, which was founded in the 1980s at roughly the same time that the country was forced to cease commercial whaling operations, has been granted an annual catch quota by the Japanese government and sells whale meat that has been procured through its lethal sampling techniques. The institute argues that catching and killing a large number of whales is necessary to improve the accuracy of its research.
Japan has set an annual catch limit of 1,035 whales in the Antarctic Ocean and 380 whales in the northern Pacific. But in the last few years, obstruction by environmental activist group Sea Shepherd has reduced the actual catch to just 103 in the Antarctic in the fiscal year ended March 2013. However, despite the low yield, the demand for whale meat in Japan has dwindled even faster. The amount of whale meat stockpiled for lack of buyers has nearly doubled over 10 years, even as anti-whaling protests helped drive catches to record lows. More than 2,300 minke whales worth of meat is sitting in freezers while whalers still plan to catch another 1,300 whales per year. Whale meat supplied half of Japan's protein needs 50 years ago, but today it's limited to specialty restaurants and school lunches in most of the country. Consumption of whale meat among the Japanese public today is around 1 percent of its peak, in the early 1960s. The number of whale meat distributors and processors declined by half between 1999 and 2012. The industry at its peak in the 1960 had more than 10,000 crewmembers and fishermen, but that number has dropped to fewer than 200, plus a small number of coastal whalers.
Meanwhile, Japan's government-subsidized whaling program is sinking deeper into debt and faces an imminent, costly renovation of its 27-year-old mother ship, Nisshin Maru. The Institute of Cetacean Research, a nonprofit entity overseen by the government that runs the program, made 2 billion yen ($20 million) from the whale meat sales last year, down from more than 7 billion yen ($70 million) in 2004. Initially, the government injected about 500 million yen ($5 million) a year into the program, or about 10 percent of its costs. By 2007, the subsidy had grown to about 900 million yen ($9 million), and is projected to exceed 5 billion yen ($50 million) for the current fiscal year ending in September. That includes money for anti-Sea Shepherd measures, such as repairs for damage and dispatch of a patrol ship.
A Galaxy poll of Japanese citizens released on Thursday asking ''Are you in favour or opposed to whaling?'' showed an overwhelming 92 per cent against. In addition, the program came under intense criticism recently when, in 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries used an earthquake and tsunami disaster reconstruction fund to help cover whaling debts. The ministry later acknowledged funneling 2.3 billion yen ($23 million) of the fund into whaling, triggering public outcry. The whaling subsidy, now part of a broader package of fisheries issues, will expire next year.
Monday's ICJ ruling in the Hague could cost Japan the roughly 1,000 whales it takes in the Antarctic each year, or its catch quota could be reduced. Other Japanese whaling in the North Pacific and off the Japanese coast will not be affected. However, it is likely that Japan will obey the ruling, given that Japan hopes to benefit from International legal support in its dispute over disputed islands and territory with its neighbors.