Every year, hunters in the coastal town of Taiji round up dolphins, herd them into a cove, and then kill some for their meat. The hunt, which gained notoriety after the documentary The Cove won an Academy Award in 2009, this year has left 41 bottlenose dolphins dead, according to conservation group Sea Shepherd, which says many of the 130 additional dolphins driven into the cove and then sent back out to sea suffered injuries that might prove fatal.
Celebrities have denounced this year’s hunt. U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, whom Japanese welcomed last year, thanks to the Camelot legacy, as well as ties to Barack Obama, took to Twitter (TWTR) to express deep concern for “the inhumaneness of drive-hunt dolphin killing.”
Meanwhile, Yoko Ono penned an open letter to the Taiji hunters, pleading with them to avoid a spectacle that feeds anti-Japanese sentiment worldwide. “Please consider the safety of the future of Japan, surrounded by many powerful countries which are always looking for the chance to weaken the power of our country,” she wrote. “At this very politically sensitive time, the hunt will make the children of the world hate the Japanese.”
The dolphin hunt isn’t the only blot on Japan’s global image from its pursuit of cetaceans. Just as bad is the annual whale hunt, now underway in waters off the coast of Antarctica. Every year, Japan gives permission for hunters to kill about 1,000 whales, the vast majority of them minke whales but also some humpback and fin whales, thanks to a loophole in the international whaling convention. The agreement, which dates back to 1946, permits governments to grant “any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research.”
While it’s unlikely that appeals from John F. Kennedy’s daughter and John Lennon’s widow will do much to dissuade the dolphin hunters of Taiji, there’s a chance that international pressure of a different sort will make this year the final whale hunt. Australia’s government has taken Japan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), arguing that Japan no longer has permission to conduct its whale hunt under the guise of research: “Japan’s continued pursuit of a large-scale program of whaling under the Second Phase of its Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Antarctic (‘JARPA II’) is in breach of obligations assumed by Japan under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (‘ICRW’), as well as its other international obligations for the preservation of marine mammals and the marine environment.”
This is the first time the Japanese government has had to defend its whaling policy in an international tribunal. An Australian court ruled against Japan in 2008, but the Japanese didn’t accept the court’s jurisdiction and didn’t contest the case, says Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at Australian National University who has advised the International Fund for Animal Welfare on whaling issues. “The Japanese didn’t even turn up,” says Rothwell.
Japan’s government did show up at the ICJ, though, so the case has already succeeded in forcing the Japanese to defend their scientific whaling policy. A ruling against Japan could put a halt to the Southern Ocean killing. Rothwell isn’t ready to predict which way the court will rule, but he does expect the ICJ will wait until after the Southern Hemisphere summer ends and this year’s whale hunt has concluded. “Given the politically contentious nature of the dispute over whaling, the court is mindful of not wanting to get itself too involved in international politics,” he says. A judgment in the middle of the whaling season “could create a lot of controversy.”
Even if Japan wins this round, the anti-whaling cause has further legal options. For instance, a government could take a case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Rothwell says. If Japan loses the current case at the ICJ, it could decide to ignore the ruling. That would be a further blow to Japan’s global image. But once a country is comfortable with killing dolphins and whales despite an international outcry, a little more public relations damage might not make much difference.