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The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is an area of 50 million square kilometres surrounding the continent of Antarctica where the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has banned all types of commercial whaling. To date, the IWC has designated two such sanctuaries, the other being the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary.
The northern boundary of the sanctuary follows the 40°S parallel of latitude except in the Indian Ocean sector where it joins the southern boundary of the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary at 55°S, and around South America and into the South Pacific where the boundary is at 60°S.
The status of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary is reviewed and open to change by the IWC every 10 years. During the 2004 meeting a proposal was made by Japan to remove the sanctuary, but it failed to reach the 75% majority required (it received 25 votes in favour and 30 votes against with two abstentions).
While commercial whaling is prohibited in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) has continued to hunt whales inside the Sanctuary in accordance with a provision in the IWC charter permitting whaling for the purposes of scientific research. Japan clarified its position on whaling in a number of forums, noting that while some whale species are threatened, many such as minke whale are not. Some conservation groups such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society claim Japan's whaling operations are conducted in violation of the IWC charter, arguing that Japan's self-imposed annual quota of 1000 whale kills for research is not really scientific activity, but rather a veil to cover commercial fishing operations as whale meat ends up being sold in Japanese markets.
In an open letter to the Japanese government, published in 2002 in the New York Times and sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 21 scientists declared that they "believe Japan's whale 'research' program fails to meet minimum standards for credible science". They were "concerned that Japan's whaling program is not designed to answer scientific questions relevant to the management of whales; that Japan refuses to make the information it collects available for independent review; and that its research program lacks testable hypotheses or other performance indicators consistent with accepted scientific standards". They accused Japan of "using the pretense of scientific research to evade its commitments to the world community".
The Australian delegation to the IWC has argued to repeal the provision that allows nations to harvest whales for scientific research, to no effect.
Japan, meanwhile, lodged a formal objection to the sanctuary with regard to minke whales, meaning that the terms of the sanctuary do not apply to its harvest of that species within the boundaries of the sanctuary. Claiming the Japanese whaling fleet's actions to be illegal, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society acts against Japanese whaling ships engaged in yearly hunts, attempting to interrupt or cut short the whaling activities. The ICR considers the activists' methods as constituting piracy, terrorism, and illegal harassment of the ICR fleet. Critics of the ICR point out that recent scientific advances allow for the use of non-lethal techniques in cetacean research, such as biopsies or determination of cetatean dietary intake through analysis of DNA samples from whale feces.
During the 2010/2011 whaling season, the ICR was forced to halt its whaling operations due to the actions of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, having harvested 172 whales (a fifth of their season quota). The ICR dispatched its whaling fleet as usual to the Northwest Pacific survey (JARPN II), with a quota for 260 whales, including 100 Minkes.
Japan has argued that the establishment of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was in contravention of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) on which the IWC is based and is therefore illegal.
This view received strong support from Professor W. T. Burke of the University of Washington in his paper circulated as IWC Document Number IWC/48/33. He refers to Article V(2) of the ICRW, which states that the creation of any sanctuary must "be based on scientific findings" and "take into consideration the interests of the consumers of whale products and the whaling industry".
As there is no settlement procedure in the IWC for this type of dispute, Japan has asked the IWC to submit its case to a relevant legal body for analysis. The IWC has refused to do so.
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