Murky waters: It’s whaling season. Again.

Why is Japan still whaling in the Southern Ocean? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. The answer is: because they can, despite a 2014 ruling by the toothless International Court of Justice that the then newly modified Japanese whaling program was illegal. Japan’s original whaling program claimed some 6,800 whales over an 18-year period, ostensibly for “scientific research.” Japan rewrote and resubmitted its program in 2014; the International Court rejected it, and Japan ignored the court’s ruling.

 ©Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

©Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

It’s the Antarctic summer right now, and once again the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is doing its best to harrass, interfere and do what little it can to prevent the whale slaughter — no thanks to Australia and New Zealand, who, if you choose to believe Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson on his Facebook page, have chosen to stand by while the Japanese whaling fleet sails unimpeded through the southern nations’ territorial waters.

None of this is new, of course. Anyone who has seen even a few minutes of Animal Planet’s Whale Wars program knows the drill by now: the ships Nisshin Maru, Ocean Warrior and Steve Irwin have practically become household names.

 @Animal Planet, Whale Wars

@Animal Planet, Whale Wars

What is new this time is that the bottom may be about to fall out of the whale-meat market in Japan and other Asian countries. That’s because — cue irony klaxon — the toxins in whale meat have now reached a point where the meat may no longer pass inspection in many countrues. Iceland’s largest whaling fleet did not leave port this past summer because the market has dried up.

Commercial whaling was banned in 1986 — some 30 years ago — but Japan’s whalers continue to exploit a loophole that allows whaling for scientific research purposes. (If you’re wondering why countries like Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands are still whaling, that’s because another loophole allows a certain amount of whaling for indigenous subsistence. Mind you, if toxicity levels are so high that many people won't eat whale meat, the whole subsistence argument becomes moot.)

Interestingly, the whalers of the mid-19th century kept copious notes — you might even say “research” — of their activities and whale behaviour, as evidenced by the historical records at whaling.oldweather.org.

 Moby-Dick illustration by Everett Henry

Moby-Dick illustration by Everett Henry

For now, the whale wars go on — though now it’s as much a PR war as anything else. Earlier this month, in a confrontation with the makings of an international incident, Sea Shepherd  spotted — and photographed — a Japanese ship with a dead whale on board, in violation of international law.

Photos taken from a  helicopter show the crew of the ship in question, the Nisshin Maru, trying to cover up a dead minke whale with a blue tarp as the whirlybird flies overhead.

 ©Sea Shepherd

©Sea Shepherd

CNN reported that the whaling division of Japan’s official Fishery Agency was withholding comment until it received  a report of its own from the Nisshin Maru. So far, no word.

Japan inssts it’s allowed to cull roughly 330 Antarctic minke whales a year as part of a research program to “study the best methods of managing minke populations.”

Australia has a keen stake in this. Australia’s Ministry for the Environment and Energy released a statement just days after the Sea Shepherd photos were made public expressing “deep disappointment” at Japan’s decision to return to the Southern Ocean to undertake so-called scientific whaling.

“Australia is opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling,” the statement read in part. “It is not necessary to kill whales in order to study them.”

 Japan Fisheries Agency

Japan Fisheries Agency

Australia has established a whale sanctuary of its own. The sanctuary covers Australia’s Excclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from the country’s coast.

As Watson has pointed out on his Facebook page, though, enforcement is everything. Sea Shepherd can’t be expected to save the whales on its own.

Then again, if the bottom falls out of the market, it will no longer be financially feasible for Japan, Iceland — or anyone — to hunt whales, for meat, sport or any other reason. We can hope.