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What The U.N. Ruling Against Japanese Whaling Really Means

On Monday, the International Court of Justice at the Hague ruled against Japan's Antarctic whaling operation, calling Japan's supposed research program "unscientific" and demanding its immediate halt. Japan agreed to accept the terms of the legally binding ICJ ruling, and although the decision applies only to the country's whaling operations in the Antarctic, it could lay the foundation for additional legal action that would limit research-based whaling in the future.

According to the Associated Press, Japan's other whaling operations could be in jeopardy as well:

Japan has a second scientific program in the north Pacific which culls around 100 minke whales annually. That program may now also be open to challenge because it was not covered in the Australian suit.

If another country does decide to challenge the scientific justification for Japanese whaling in the north Pacific, the ICJ is likely to maintain a similar standard for research that emphasizes non-lethal methods. But, as the New York Times points out, Japan now has the opportunity to "redesign" its whaling research operation in the south Pacific, which could effectively allow the country to circumvent today's ruling:

Though the ruling is final, it allows the Japanese to continue to hunt whales under a redesigned program, warned Nanami Kurasawa, who heads a marine conservation group in Tokyo....

"It's an important decision, but it also leaves the Japanese government a lot of leeway," Ms. Kurasawa said. "The Japanese government could start research whaling again but under a different name, and it would be out of the ruling's purview."

Paul Watson, founder of the cetacean activist group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society -- one of the leading forces against Japanese whaling -- expressed skepticism at Japan's complete compliance with the ruling. "I'm not 100 percent convinced they will abide by the ruling," Watson told AFP. "They tend to agree and then do whatever they want to do anyway; that has been the history with the International Whaling Commission."

Japanese officials have asserted that the country has no plans to withdraw from the IWC. But, as Time notes, Japan could choose to reject the organization's moratorium on commercial whaling -- as Norway and Iceland have -- or leave altogether, which might be more in line with national interests:

The drive to keep whaling today has much less to do with a taste for whale meat-which has long since waned-than it does with the government's worry that any limit on whaling could set a precedent for Japan's far more vital commercial fishing industry. Tokyo is right to worry-blue-fin tuna, which can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, are highly endangered as well.

But regardless of what Japan decides to do in the wake of the ruling, the ICJ's decision marks a huge step in increasing scrutiny of -- and eventually putting a stop to -- whaling around the world. At worst, the ruling is symbolic -- the court has no enforcement capacity -- but that doesn't mean it will go without effect. "[Sea Shepherd] ships will be prepared and ready to return if they return," Watson said. "And if they don't return, then we'll be able to refocus our efforts against Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese whaling."