Australia and Japan in court battle over whaling

AMSTERDAM (REUTERS) - Australia will try to persuade judges that Japan's scientific whaling programme is commercial whaling in disguise in a case between the countries that opens in The Hague on Wednesday.

Japan introduced scientific whaling to skirt a commercial whaling ban under a 1986 moratorium. It argues it has a right to monitor the whales' impact on its fishing industry.

But Australia, which filed its case at the International Court of Justice in 2010, says Japan's scientific programme in the Southern Ocean is a cover for commercial whaling.

"More than 10,000 whales have been killed as a result of Japan's so-called scientific whaling programme since the moratorium commenced in the mid-1980s," Mr Mark Dreyfus, Australia's attorney general, told reporters this week.

"We do want the whaling to stop, and we say that Japan's whaling program is in breach of its international obligations," added Mr Dreyfus, who will present Australia's opening arguments at the court on Wednesday.

Japanese diplomat Noriyuki Shikata said the Japanese Whale Research Programme yielded essential information about the age distribution and proportion of males to females in the Antarctic whale population, helping decide if stocks were recovering.

"There are about 515,000 minke whales in the Antarctic, and Japan's research is taking only about 815 a year," Mr Shikata said.

"This is below the reproductive rate and... very sustainable." Nonetheless, environmental campaigners condemned the practice.

"Commercial whaling, whether conducted openly or under the guise of science, is a cruel and outdated practice which produces no science of value," said Mr Patrick Ramage, director of the whales programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in London.

"All necessary research on these whales can be done by non-lethal means," said Mr John Frizell, a whales campaigner at Greenpeace. Neither group is involved in the case.

Both countries have agreed to be bound by the court's ruling. Japan's court filings are not yet public.

While Australia has many backers - New Zealand has filed a brief in support of its case - support for a complete whaling ban is not unanimous.

Norway, which never agreed to the whaling moratorium, continues to whale commercially and has declined to intervene in the case.

Its fisheries minister Lisbeth Berg-Hansen told has parliament it was up to Japan to decide how it wanted to conduct research into whales.