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Australia takes Japan to U.N. court over whale hunt

The Yushin Maru No. 2 leaves Shimonoseki port in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, on Dec. 28, 2012, as part of a fleet for research whaling in the Antarctic Sea.
Kyodo

Pacific neighbors Australia and Japan are battling in the International Court of Justice, as Australia urges the United Nations to ban Japan's yearly whale hunt.

The annual hunt is carried out in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean, an area Australia declared a whale sanctuary in 1999. Tokyo is defending the program as culturally and scientifically important.

Initiated more than three years ago, the case opens Wednesday in the Hague. Australia calls the hunt "illegal," a tradition of "unnecessary slaughter" that breaches Japan's international responsibility to preserve marine life, as well as the international moratorium on commercial whaling that has been in place since 1986.

Japan is able to skirt the international moratorium by self-issuing a "scientific permit," a move that is allowed by the International Whaling Commission. The permit allows for the catch of 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales each year.

NPR reports that Japan's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs said the hunt provides information on "age composition, sexual maturity and pregnancy rates" of whales, but critics say there is little new data that Japan can compile by capturing the whales. They also point out, and Japan does not attempt to hide, that after scientific information is collected, the whale meat is sold commercially.

"Japan seeks to cloak its ongoing commercial whaling in the lab coat of science," an Australian government lawyer to the court judges Wednesday, according to Reuters.

Culturally, the Japanese government says, banning the annual hunt could significantly impact the small coastal fishing villages that have already been economically impacted by the commercial whale hunting ban. Eating whale meat is a cultural tradition that the Japanese are not ready to leave behind, they added.

According to court documents, Japan has killed 6,500 Antarctic minke whales between 1987 and 2005. In the 31 years prior to the commercial hunting moratorium, Japan had killed 840 whales for research purposes.

The case starts with three days of opening arguments from Australian officials, followed by three days of counter arguments from Japan. New Zealand will also make a set of arguments in support of Australia's position, before the case wraps on July 16. Australia is hoping for a court ruling before the Japanese whaling fleet embarks on the annual hunt in November or December.

"We're hopeful of a decision from the International Court of Justice before the end of the year and certainly before the start of the next whale hunting season," Australia's attorney general Mark Dreyfus told The Associated Press.

"We want to see the practice halted once and for all," he said in court.

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.