Conservationists flag legal action over Japan whale hunt

SYDNEY: Japan was facing mounting condemnation Tuesday over its decision to resume killing whales in Antarctica, with conservationists saying it was open to another legal challenge.

Australia and New Zealand have led criticism of the resumption of "scientific" whaling, with both expressing disappointment.

"It's not scientific research, it's straight up commercial whaling, and it's been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice," said Nathaniel Pelle from Greenpeace Australia.

Japan announced Monday it would send a whaling research mission to Antarctic waters this month but would cut its annual minke catch by two-thirds to 333.

Its departure, expected Tuesday, ends a year-long suspension prompted by the United Nations' International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 2014 that the annual hunt was a commercial venture masquerading as research.

Japan's Fisheries Agency insisted Monday the upcoming hunt reflected previous recommendations from the International Whaling Commission's scientific committee.

But the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Australian Marine Conservation Society said a panel of legal experts asked to consider Japan's proposed new "scientific" whaling had found it broke international law. The Australian and New Zealand experts said the new mission was inconsistent with Japan's international obligations.

"The panel concluded that Japan's new whaling programme violates international law and that Australia or other countries still have options to challenge Japan's actions before international courts," said chair and Australian National University professor Donald Rothwell.

Australia has urged a diplomatic solution, with Attorney-General George Brandis saying Monday the government would be taking the matter "to the highest level".

"Australia is urging Japan... not to resume this practice," Brandis told the Senate, adding that sending a boat to monitor the Southern Ocean was a possibility.

New Zealand's acting Foreign Minister Todd McClay said the resumption of whaling was deeply disappointing.

"New Zealand's long-standing and fundamental opposition to this practice remains unchanged," he said at the weekend.

"It is clear that Japan's research objectives can be met using non-lethal means," he said, adding New Zealand was considering "all options".

Environmentalists from Sea Shepherd Australia have said they will pursue the Japanese fleet and aim to intervene in any slaughter of the animals.