National Geographic News
A photo of a minke whale captured near Japan.

Crew members hoist a minke whale, captured near Kushiro, Japan, aboard a ship.

PHOTOGRAOH BY KYODO VIA AP

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published March 31, 2014

Japan says it will abide by a Monday ruling from the United Nations' International Court of Justice ordering the nation to stop hunting whales off Antarctica.

Japan had long claimed that its program to take minke, fin, and humpback whales in the waters surrounding Antarctica (referred to in the ruling as the Southern Ocean) was aimed at collecting scientific data.

But the International Court of Justice (ICJ), headquartered at the Hague in the Netherlands, found that the program was not scientific in nature and that it could be considered commercial whaling.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986, and most countries participating in the IWC, including Japan, have said they will follow that ban.

"Japan is disappointed and regrets" today's ruling, according to a statement by the chief cabinet secretary of Japan. "However, Japan will abide by the Judgment of the Court."

Until now, Japan had continued taking whales under a provision of the 1986 ban known as Article Eight, which allowed the killing of whales for scientific purposes. (See: "Anti-Whaling Activists Put Focus on Complex Law and Bloody Tradition.")

"It's a huge victory," Leigh Henry, senior policy advisor for wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said of Monday’s ruling, which goes into effect immediately. "We've been fighting this battle for over three decades with little results."

"Essentially, [Japan] was exploiting this loophole" in the whaling ban, Henry said. (Related: "Whale Hunting to Continue in Antarctic Sanctuary.")

A Nonscientific Hunt

The suit, brought before the UN court by Australia—with support from New Zealand—alleged that Japan's whaling program was not based on sound scientific principles.

The court ruled in favor of Australia, finding that Japan had failed to address a variety of Australia's concerns, including whether nonlethal methods could be used to collect data rather than lethal methods.

Japan has said it needs to kill whales to obtain basic biological information about the animals, such as data on pregnancy rates and age at first reproduction, said Leah Gerber, a marine mammal biologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

But "we don't need to keep killing them to do science," she said. Blubber biopsies can give researchers plenty of information on reproductive status and diet. That just requires shooting a small dart at a whale to take a plug of skin and blubber.

Once a Japanese ship lands a whale, there is some semblance of scientific activity, including collecting organs for use in research, Gerber said. But the bulk of the whale goes to market, she said, where it's sold for consumption.

The court said that Japan also failed to justify their sample sizes—850 minke whales, plus or minus 10 percent; 50 fin whales; and 50 humpbacks.

"Other aspects of JARPA II also cast doubt on its characterization as a programme for purposes of scientific research," the court said, referring to the name of the Japanese program, "such as its open-ended time frame, its limited scientific output to date, and the absence of significant co-operation between JARPA II and other related research projects."

Should Japan later decide not to abide by the ICJ's ruling, enforcement options are limited. But enforcement measures could include pressure from other governments in the form of economic sanctions.

Smaller Marine Mammals Still Hunted

This decision affects Japan's taking of big whale species—which include humpbacks, fins, and minke whales—since the 1986 whaling ban applies only to medium-size and large whales.

Smaller relatives, like dolphins and porpoises, are still subject to hunting. Thus Japan's controversial take of dolphins in Taiji Cove can continue. (See: "Pictures: Scenes From Taiji Dolphin Roundup in Japan.")

Japan is not the only country that has continued its whaling practices. Norway, also part of the IWC, opted out of the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. (See which countries continue to hunt whales.)

Called "taking a reservation," Norway continues to hunt whales, but does so according to sustainability guidelines provided by the IWC, said Henry.

Iceland dropped out of the IWC after the 1986 ban, but rejoined two years later and opted out of the moratorium. The country has continued to hunt whales and doesn't follow sustainability guidelines, Henry said.

A coalition of wildlife groups have submitted a formal request, called a Pelly petition, to the U.S. government to cite Iceland for its whaling activities.

Some IWC member countries take whales as part of subsistence hunts. "That's allowed by the IWC and is very well managed and overseen by the IWC," said Henry. Canada participates in the subsistence hunts, but is not part of the commission. (Read "Last of the Viking Whalers" in National Geographic magazine.)

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

46 comments
Nathan Neeley
Nathan Neeley

Great news, Now I hope they get rid of that stupid show "Whale Wars."

ray jackson
ray jackson

LET ME SAY THIS; WHALING FOR SCIENITIFIC PURPOSES  THAT JAPAN PROFESSED TO BE DOING WAS A JOKE 10 FOLD.BOY DID THEY  HOODWINK 

THE WORLD ON THAT ONE. BETTER LATE THAN NEVER.

Penny Ollard
Penny Ollard

Let us see how long it takes the Japanese to find a way round this ruling? However their  younger generations educated properly concerning Wildlife (as in all land and sea based) may take a different view and want to bring this hunting to an end together with all other hunting that is both abhorrent and illegal also.  I to will wait and watch to see for how long the Japanese abide by this ruling!?

Sam Bluesilver
Sam Bluesilver

Great news! Let's hope this ban keeps. Although I somehow feel they will find another loophole around it. There was never any "Scientific research" here. Who were they kidding? What was the research supposed to find and what was it titled?...  "Does the hunting of Whales reduce or increase their populations? And if we call it "Scientific research" How long can we get away with killing them for food and nonsense medicine?".

Something also needs to be done about Chinese demand for Tiger, Leopard and other wild animals being slaughtered and exterminated for meat, body parts, fur being used in the sickening fur-trade and again this evil nonsense medicine.

Plus this terrible ever growing trend in the United States for canned hunts must be stopped!

All countries rich in economy, yet poor in morality and ethics when it comes to wildlife and nature.

A worldwide effort needs to be made by all governments to ensure that wildlife and nature is protected from the unscrupulous efforts of the vain and greedy to make a quick buck!

Richard Austin
Richard Austin

Fantastic now lets stop the butchering of Rhinos and slaughter of elephants for the far eastern markets please, before it is too late!

C. Adorio
C. Adorio

It's about time. Japan is notorious for harvesting the world's resources for their voracious appetites and greed. 

Rory O'Neil
Rory O'Neil

Certainly a major victory for the whales, Southern Ocean and all concerns. The door remains open as to whether or not Japan continues whaling within its own terretorial waters (as depicted in photo).

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

This is how Conservation should work!


not through Hippies attacking ships

not through Facebook likes

 and not through Racial attacks


Justice links us both and I think its very honourable of Japan to admit it's wrongdoing.   

Stephanie Gransch Christy
Stephanie Gransch Christy

It's ABOUT TIME. Way to go, SEA SHEPHERD... Your hard battles against this barbaric killing has done the whales justice. Now the next target, save the Dolphin's. 


When are these individuals going to work out ,that they are destroying the Ocean eco system. 

Pearl Dasalla
Pearl Dasalla

This is very interesting, but it seems like Japan is not the only country that needs to be targeted.  If they are going to reprimand one they must reprimand all.

Jo Ristow
Jo Ristow

I think Japan should be made to "donate" to a sea animal preservation fund, an amount equal to commercial profit made from the sale whale meat since 1986 - the date they SHOULD have stopped hunting and killing whales…..

Eryka Velázquez
Eryka Velázquez

Congratulations to the people that were working on this for so long!

Pieter Van Riet
Pieter Van Riet

The caption to the photograph is misleading, "captured" would indicate the whale is still alive whilst it is clear it has been "hunted" and is dead.  I applaud all those dedicated persons who fought for, and brought about this ruling.  

Karina F.R.
Karina F.R.

Great news,,,that's what we need right now,,,Well done Australia!!!! whales always welcome

Angel Fitzsimmons
Angel Fitzsimmons

It's about time - long overdue but better late than never.  Let's have a virtual "Hug a Whale" Day this week!

Nina Parfinenko
Nina Parfinenko

Wow! I appload to Australians and to WWF. Please keep going. Please stop their cruel dolphin massacres in Taiji as well.

Teresa Wagner
Teresa Wagner

Bravo!  Today, the world celebrates this victory for the whales! Next, let's make them stop the carnage in Taiji.

Thank you Sea Shepherd for your brave work of ten years in the Southern Ocean preventing these lying (stating they were doing research when the whole world knew they were not) poachers (breaking the law) from killing more whales than they did.

eoiin scannell
eoiin scannell

a great victory for the whales definately but i dont see japan obeying the rules for long

Kevin Young
Kevin Young

THANK YOU to Paul Watson, his crew, and all donors who have fought the good fight for all these years!

Bub Kaufmann
Bub Kaufmann

Wow, I was wondering if they would abide by the ruling. I congratulate Japan for their acquiescence to the International court of Justice. 

Daryl Hutchins
Daryl Hutchins

@C. Dufour  

Japan has NOT admitted wrongdoing. It has disagreed with the decision, but decided to abide by the ruling of the court. Only half honourable.

Justice takes 30 years to decide that bald-faced liars are not telling the truth! Great system.

Erie Khuzairi
Erie Khuzairi

@C. Dufour  without the evidence filmed by the SEA SHEPHERD, how in earth they can prove the japanese is more barbaric and so called "honourable" of gathering the sample by killing whales? thanks to Paul Watson and his crews.

Judy Neal
Judy Neal

@C. Dufour  Don't you think that all these activities have had some bearing on the situation, and influenced the decision?

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

@Stephanie Gransch Christy  Why thank sea shepherd?


WWF has been fighting this for 30 years and they finally managed to get them to court. This was not and act rogue vigilante justice

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

@Pearl Dasalla  Legally though, you can force a country to join the international whaling committee. Iceland and Norway are fishing within their own legal waters.

Anson Ching
Anson Ching

@Jo Ristow  And what of the Western European countries, including Australia and New Zealand, that had made whale populations to the meagre ones we see today in the first place? Should they donate as well? What, the West stands on moral high ground just because they have finished their battle over whaling?

Diego Espin
Diego Espin

@C. Dufour @Pearl Dasalla  This is where I hate borders, legal waters and other forms of territorial domination. The animals are not aware of those borders, they are killed in a big ocean for profit of few, using nationality as an excuse.

Larissa Albuquerque
Larissa Albuquerque

@Anson Ching Australia and New Zealand stopped whaling a long time ago, whereas Japan, due to it's "refined fine eating" kept killing whales and keeps sharking for its own selfish purposes. You can not be that ignorant to the point where you would blame other countries for what is happening nowadays. Japan blew everything out of proportion and honestly, they need to be punished whether it is to pay a huge fine for breaking the contract they signed back in the 80s, or as our friend said, "donate" to a sea animal preservation fund.

Stephanie Gransch Christy
Stephanie Gransch Christy

@Anson Ching @Jo Ristow  Anson Jo made a valid point, your's however really isn't. Most marine life forms the ocean eco system. Without it, it's like the rain forests that ppl destroy for money. And that is exactly why Japanese ppl have been whaling for all of these years. $$$$$$MONEY$$$$$$$$

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

@Anson Ching


I agree with you Anson ching, There no way Japan should have to pay. This sort of stuff is just like forcing the Germans to pay after world war 1. Nothing good can come of this.

Anson Ching
Anson Ching

@Stephanie Gransch Christy @Anson Ching @Jo Ristow  I think you need to look at what I said one more time and reassess if you really addressed anything I said in there.

I think everyone knows that whaling is done for profit, and that the Japanese were using their science experiments as a front for something other than science...And I think everyone knows about marine life forms connections with the ecosystem. 

I don't even know what to say to you're hilarious comment other than that.

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