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Japan 'holds they key' to progress at International Whaling Commission meeting, expert says

June 18, 2010 |  6:10 pm

Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru

TOKYO — Nations will next week consider whether to sanction commercial whale hunts for the first time in a quarter-century, a compromise to coax Japan into ending an annual cull of hundreds of the sea mammals in a sanctuary in the Antarctic.

The broader goal at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Morocco that begins Monday is to fix a fractured regulatory system in which a handful of whaling nations currently operate under a complex set of exemptions.

The focus will be on Japan, the strongest advocate of modern whaling. Even firm opponents are willing to allow limited commercial hunts if Tokyo stops pursuing whales in the southern sanctuary -- a hunt allowed in the name of scientific research although much of the catch goes on sale in Japan as meat.

But that appears to be more than the Japanese are willing to concede.

"Japan holds the key, because Japan is the only country that is whaling in the southern ocean, the only country whaling in the sanctuary, the only country doing high-seas, long-distance whaling," said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group, which supports allowing some whaling.

The effectiveness of the IWC, the world's sole whaling regulator, is at stake. After whaling devastated many species, the commission instituted a ban in 1986, but Japan, Norway and Iceland harvest animals annually under its various exceptions.

"The moratorium has been one of the single most effective conservation achievements of the century, but it's not working currently in the sense that several governments can whale completely outside the IWC's control," said Wendy Elliott, who will lead a group from the World Wildlife Fund at the meeting.

The frigid Antarctic has become the focus of the heated debate. The area was declared a sanctuary in 1994, but Japan hunts there under its scientific exemption. Norway and Iceland conduct much smaller hunts nearer their own coasts, fueling less anger from opponents.

Each year in the Antarctic, Japan's whalers clash among the ice floes with the militant anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd. On the hunt this year, the Sea Shepherd lost a catamaran in a collision and one member was arrested when he boarded a Japanese whaler at sea.

Antarctic whaling has also boiled over into diplomatic channels. Australia is taking Japan to the International Court of Justice, and the U.S. and a host of other countries have come out against the Antarctic hunts.

Japan maintains more scientific analysis is required in the region. It catches mostly Antarctic minke whales, aiming for about 1,000 per year but often catching far less because of protesters.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List, a neutral listing of animal populations worldwide, says there is not enough data to determine if the species is threatened or not, although the population is "clearly in the hundreds of thousands."

Agreement within the IWC appears agonizingly close. Since a proposal was floated in April by the IWC chairman, some from the anti-whaling side, including the U.S. delegation, Greenpeace, the WWF and the Pew Group, have said they would consider voting to allow limited commercial hunts, and Japan has signaled it may accept taking fewer whales than it does now.

But in the days leading up to the conference, the sticking point remains the southern sanctuary. Any agreement will be voted on by the full 88 member countries, with the goal to reach consensus and eliminate all whaling under objections and exceptions.

Two whaling officials at Japan's powerful Fisheries Agency, which sets the national agenda on whaling issues, said the country will not give up its Antarctic hunts, with one calling them "crucial." Both asked to remain anonymous because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

Makoto Ito, managing director of Kyodo Senpaku Co., the company that runs the annual Antarctic hunt, said he didn't think they should be ended, because "we need to collect more data."

Japan's refusal to give up its Antarctic hunt puzzles even observers within the country. Current coastal catches, also conducted for scientific research, provide fresher meat and are cheaper. IWC approval would allow whalers to switch to commercial hunts and chase bigger whales, as well as shield Japan from international criticism.

Even if research proved the hunted whale populations were sustainable in the southern region, whether anyone would conduct such hunts is doubtful, making the purpose of the current scientific trips hard to understand, says Ayako Okubo, a researcher at Tokyo University.

"Truthfully, private companies would not go whaling in the Atlantic, if it weren't for the research hunts," she said.

But bureaucrats at the Fisheries Agency feel they are defending Japan's sovereign rights and food tradition, and have linked the issue with national pride. Many within Japan feel making any concessions on whaling is giving in to foreign pressure, said Jun Morikawa, a professor at Rakuno Gakuen University in northern Hokkaido.

"Nationalism is a double-edged sword. National sentiment has been activated now. But do you think the Fisheries Agency could pull out, even if it wanted to?" he said.

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-- Jay Alabaster, Associated Press

Photo: Japanese media cover the return of the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru in 2008. Credit: Itsuo Inouye / Associated Press

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