Prime Minister John Key has called the UN ruling against Japanese whaling "a great decision" and said he hoped it would see an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean.
Judges at the International Court of Justice, the highest UN court, today rejected Japan's long-held argument that the catch was for scientific purposes and not primarily for human consumption.
Key said the Japanese could still apply to the ICJ or to the International Whaling Commission to return to the Southern Ocean with a true scientific whaling programme but that would likely see a major reduction in their allowable catch.
"And given that we would make the case they've largely been commercially whaling that may well not be commercial for them so hopefully they would abandon that."
It was unlikely they would pull out of the IWC as they had already said they would observe the decision and had historically observed the rule of law, he said.
"So I think for New Zealanders hopefully we've seen the last of Japanese whaling vessels in the great Southern Ocean."
TOKYO TO COMPLY
Tokyo said it was disappointed but would abide by the decision, while activists said they hoped it would bring closer a complete end to whaling.
The court sided with plaintiff Australia, which was supported by New Zealand, in finding that the scientific output of the whaling programme did not justify the number of whales killed.
The practice was deeply offensive to many New Zealanders, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said this morning.
Activist Pete Bethune, who in 2010 was arrested and indicted in Japan after he boarded a Japanese whaling vessel in the southern ocean, slept outside The Hague overnight to make sure he was in the court to see the ruling handed down.
"I am over the moon," he said today.
"I believe justice has been served and I feel in some way vindicated with my activities in 2010. It's been amazing, a very emotional day."
The tribunal said no further licences should be issued for scientific whaling, where animals are first examined for research purposes before the meat was sold to consumers.
"In light of the fact the JARPA II (research programme) has been going on since 2005, and has involved the killing of about 3600 minke whales, the scientific output to date appears limited," presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia said.
Japan signed a 1986 moratorium on whaling, but has continued to hunt up to 850 minke whales in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean, as well as smaller numbers of fin and humpback whales, citing a 1946 treaty that permits killing the giant mammals for research.
Japan was "deeply disappointed" by the ruling, but it would comply, said Koji Tsuruoka, the country's chief lawyer before the court.
He said the Japanese Government would need to study the ruling before taking any further action.
Judges agreed with Australia that the Japanese research - two peer-reviewed papers since 2005, based on results obtained from just nine killed whales - was not proportionate to the number of animals killed.
The judgment is an embarrassment to Japan, but Tokyo could continue whaling if it devised a new, more persuasive programme of scientific that required "lethal catch" of whales, or if it withdrew from the whaling moratorium or the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.
WHALING PROGRAMME 'HARPOONED'
McCully welcomed the decision.
"The ICJ decision sinks a giant harpoon into the legality of Japan's whaling programme: JARPA II," he said.
"New Zealand has consistently opposed Japan's so-called 'scientific' whaling, which is a practice that is deeply offensive to many New Zealanders."
McCully said he hoped Japan would "respect the Court's decision".
He said he sent a text to Australian speaker of the house Bronwyn Bishop last night to congratulate her on the decision.
McCully said New Zealand could also take "significant credit" as well.
"The legal case that New Zealand spelt out as intervenor in the court is essentially the logic the court outlined in its judgement last night, so I think the lawyers who served the New Zealand Government's interest here have absolutely picked the right lines to run with for the court," he said.
"They've effectively had their position confirmed."
But McCully stopped short of saying any thanks for the decision could go to Sea Shepherd.
"What I've said before is a programme that is carried out today, largely for reasons of pride on Japan's part, rather than because there's any use for the whale meat or any useful scientific outcomes," he said.
"One of the problems has been that the protest activity down there has rather made Japan dig its heels in. So while I'm sure that some of the Sea Shepherd people will claim credit for it, in fact my own perspective is Japan needs a bit of space here to work its way out of what is a practice that's got no future."
Labour's foreign affairs spokesman David Shearer said the ruling was a victory for both New Zealand and Australia.
"The court has confirmed what New Zealand has always claimed - that Japan's continued killing of whales under JARPA II, which is nothing more than slaughter under the highly dubious guise of science, is false," he said.
"Like New Zealand, Japan has always placed great importance on the international legal order and the rule of law. Japan's early statements that it will abide by the ICJ's ruling are welcome.
"Diplomatic efforts are now needed to ensure that new loopholes are not found to continue whaling operations."
Shearer said the decision was "fantastic news" for those who had campaigned for the protection of whales.
Whaling was once widespread around the world, but Japan is now one of only three countries, alongside Iceland and Norway, that continue the practice.
The meat is popular with some Japanese consumers who consider it a delicacy.
Norway, the other main whaling nation, in 1993 shifted away from scientific whaling to "commercial" catches, where the meat is sold directly to consumers.
Norway set a quota of 1286 minke whales in the north Atlantic in last year's summer hunt, saying stocks were plentiful in the region. Fishermen rarely catch the full quota, partly because demand has sunk in recent years.
Iceland and Norway do not claim to be carrying out research, openly hunting whale meat for commercial purposes, meaning the ICJ's ruling has no immediate consequences for them. But activists said the ruling reflected a gradually changing climate that would put an end to whaling.
"Whaling is under immense scrutiny from the international community, and the pincer movement on these countries is ever tightening," said Claire Bass, wildlife campaigner at the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
- Reuters, Fairfax NZ
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