Japan's whale hunt in spotlight but Australia's legal threat stalls

Australia is about to launch a fresh diplomatic drive to expose Japan's claim to kill whales in the name of science, but a threat of further international legal action appears to be on hold for now.

The 88 countries of the International Whaling Commission will meet in Slovenia next week in the organisation's first summit since Japan controversially restarted its Antarctic whale hunt.

Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg will lead Australia's delegation and argue for countries to adopt a new rule for stronger and more transparent scrutiny of Japan's scientific whaling claims.

"The commission must be more engaged on this important and divisive issue and form its own conclusions", Mr Frydenberg told Fairfax Media.

But Japan remains defiant, killing 333 minke whales last summer, despite a 2014 international court ruling, in a case brought by Australia, that declared the whale hunt to be illegal.

Japan last year partially withdrew from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice at The Hague to prevent any further challenge on whaling, and issued new guidelines that Tokyo claims justify killing more than 4000 whales in the next decade.

Conservation groups are urging the Turnbull government to send a patrol vessel to the Southern Ocean in the coming months to monitor Japan's whaling fleet.

Sea Shepherd activists also look set for another high-seas confrontation over whaling this summer, after last year being unable to track the Japanese fleet.

The protest group has a new, $12 million custom-designed ship donated by the Dutch lottery charity that Sea Shepherd claims will be able to outrun Japan's harpoon ships - although is still looking to raise $1 million for fuel and costs of operating in the rough waters of the Southern Ocean.

"Sea Shepherd has only limited funds and resources and we would much rather that the Australian government send a vessel to oppose Japan's whaling and we not even need to go south," said Jeff Hansen from Sea Shepherd.

The Coalition had pledged when in opposition to send a patrol ship to the Southern Ocean, but in government decided not to.

There are fears any official observers would be dragged into clashes between the whalers and Sea Shepherd.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has also previously warned Australia could force Japan back to court over whaling, but the prospect of legal action has stalled without an obvious venue.

Australia is cautious about any legal action that could inadvertently disrupt the Antarctic Treaty System, which prohibits countries asserting additional territorial claims.

Attention has instead swung to the whaling commission, now in its 70th year, and an attempt to bolster a global moratorium on whaling, which dates to the 1980s.

Japan exploits a provision of the commission's treaty that allows "scientific whaling", and the Institute of Cetacean Research in Japan also hosts a website to promote whale meat recipes.

Josh Coates, from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, called for countries to tighten the rules to stop Japan bypassing the global ban.

"So-called 'scientific' whaling is nothing more than commercial whaling in disguise," Mr Coates said.

"If the IWC fails to halt Southern Ocean whaling, Australians expect our government to take action outside the IWC to stop it once and for all," he said.

Australia will sponsor two resolutions at the summit in Slovenia – the first a joint effort with New Zealand to force a public debate on the merits of scientific whaling, rather than deferring discussion to the mostly closed-door meetings of its "scientific committee".

The push is believed to have encountered some resistance from South American nations, concerned it may inadvertently give a platform for Japan to explain it actions.

But the whaling commission has been notoriously opaque in its dealings, with several land-locked countries in the past serving as members with Japanese support.

Australia, along with the United States and New Zealand, will also seek an expert review of the governance of the commission in an attempt to improve transparency.

"We need to ensure the commission keeps pace with the times. Among other things, the review will consider how the commission's work priorities are set, and how its funding is allocated," Mr Frydenberg said.

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The story Japan's whale hunt in spotlight but Australia's legal threat stalls first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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