The United Nations' highest court has ordered Japan to halt a whaling program that it found to be in violation of a moratorium on commercial whaling that's been in place since 1986. Japan had claimed that its whaling activities in the Southern Ocean, which have been ongoing since 1987 as part of two successive programs, were being legally conducted as scientific research, but the UN's International Court of Justice found its research claims to be tenuous and ordered that it end the program. Japan said that it would abide by the case's ruling, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Japan began scientific whaling shortly after the commercial ban was put in place

The court found that Japan's activities could be broadly considered scientific, but it concluded that "the evidence does not establish that the program's design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives." In particular, the court found that Japan's claim that its ongoing whaling research program, JARPA II, was meant to monitor whale populations in response to hunting didn't add up to its actual whaling activities. The court writes that it "observes a significant gap between the JARPA II target sample sizes and the actual take." It notes that several other aspects of JARPA II "cast further doubt on its characterization as a program for purposes of scientific research," including its open ended timeframe, its limited scientific output, and its lack of collaboration with other Southern Ocean research programs. Japan had set targets of about 850 minke whales per year, in addition to 50 each of fin and humpback whales.

Though Japan argued that its whaling program was scientific, the Journal reports that Japan has also argued that whaling is part of its cultural tradition, with whale meat once serving as a inexpensive source of food. The Associated Press reports that most of the whale meat taken in the JARPA II hunts is still sold, though this was not among the reasons that the UN court found its program to be unscientific. Scientific whaling expeditions are allowed by the International Whaling Commission, and can be set up by individual countries, so long as they meet a limited set of requirements and kill the whales in accordance with established practices.

The case was brought by Australia in 2010 and will only halt Japan's whaling in the Southern Ocean. It has a similar program, an offshoot of JARPA II, in the North Pacific. This program will likely be subject to further international scrutiny following today's ruling against its larger Southern Ocean program. In addition to Japan, Norway and Iceland still allow whaling, despite the international ban.