By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Judges at the highest U.N. court ordered Japan on Monday to halt whaling in the Antarctic, rejecting the country's argument that the catch was for scientific purposes.
The International Court of Justice sided with plaintiff Australia in finding that the scientific output of the whaling program was modest in comparison with the number of whales killed.
It said no further scientific whaling licenses should be issued.
"In light of the fact the JARPA II (research program) has been going on since 2005, and has involved the killing of about 3,600 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 each year, citing a 1946 treaty that permits killing the giant mammals for research.
Whaling was once widespread around the world, but Japan is now one of only a handful of countries that continues the practice. The meat is popular with Japanese consumers who consider it a delicacy.
Judges agreed with Australia that the 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.
While the judgment is an embarrassment to Japan, which has committed to abide by the court's ruling, Tokyo is free to continue whaling if it withdraws from the 1986 moratorium or the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.
"All eyes are now on Japan to respect this decision," the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals said in a statement. "This decision sends a clear message to governments around the world that the exploitation of animals will no longer be tolerated and animals must be protected at the highest level.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Alison Williams)