By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The Japanese practice of catching and killing nearly 1,000 whales a year cannot be justified as science, an expert witness told the World Court on Thursday in a case Australia has brought against Japan.
Despite an international whaling moratorium in force since 1986, Japan continues to catch the aquatic mammals in the Antarctic under a clause allowing scientific research, but critics say the real reason for the hunt is to continue harvesting whale meat.
That view was supported by Marc Mangel, a mathematical biologist from the University of California Santa Cruz, who told the International Court of Justice that "lethal take" - catching and killing specimens - needed to answer specific scientific questions if it was to count as science.
"Lethal take can only make sense if we have a question that needs to be answered ... a meaningful question," said Mangel, who was called as a witness by Australia to the World Court, a U.N. body that settles legal disputes between nations.
Japan and Australia have both agreed to be bound by the Hague court's verdict and activists are hoping for a ruling against Tokyo that they believe will put an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean.
One of only a handful of countries that continues to hunt whales, Japan says the 815-or-so whales it kills each year contribute to research designed to establish if whale stocks are recovering from previous over-hunting. The meat is eaten by the many Japanese consumers who consider it a delicacy.
Japan says its whaling is no threat to the survival of any species, but environmentalists and animal rights activists say whale hunting should be stopped completely.
Under a 1946 treaty on whaling, to which Japan is a signatory, countries can catch unlimited numbers of whales if they are needed for scientific purposes, regardless of the moratorium agreed in the 1980s.
The treaty does not address what counts as science. But lawyers for Australia said the collection of raw data without having in mind a specific question did not count.
"What you have before you is not a scientific research program. It is a heap of body parts taken from a pile of dead whales," said Phillippe Sands, a lawyer for Australia.
Japan will start presenting its case to judges on Tuesday.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)