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Ban On Commercial Whale Hunting At Risk

by Samanta Sen

Minke whales called "cockroaches of the ocean"
(IPS) LONDON -- Thousands of the world's whales are still safe after the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) ended inconclusively in London July 27. But environmentalists fear that safety might last only another year or so.

In a year's time, they say, the commission could find itself looking at increased pressure for the reversal of a current ban on the commercial hunting of whales.

One of the most acrimonious weeks in the days of the whaling commission ended yesterday with the divide over whaling stronger than ever, as Japan and Norway insisted on continuing to kill whales.

The rest of the IWC members, led by Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States continued to support the moratorium on commercial hunting of whales set by the commission in 1986.

Officially speaking, only about 1,200 minke whales are killed each year, almost entirely by Norway and Japan.

But the week-long conference here was marked by heated disputes over these numbers. The Japanese said they were whaling a few hundred out of a trillion, while the New Zealanders said it could be many more than a few hundred among about 250,000 or so minke whales.

After this year's meeting, the danger to whales will arise next year when the whaling commission holds its annual meeting in Tokyo, Ben Stewart from the International Fund For Animal Welfare said in an interview.

"Given the vote-buying policy of Japan they are likely to generate majority support for a return to commercial whaling," he said.

Many of the poor among the 43 member countries of the commission, including six small Caribbean states, voted with Japan this week in what Stewart called "an auction, not a vote."

Japan's tactics stirred up a storm earlier this month, after a Japanese fisheries agency official virtually admitted to giving aid in exchange for support for its whaling policies.

Masayuki Komatsu told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ahead of the meeting that Japan has a right to use its economic powers to persuade countries from opposing the ban on whaling.

Minke whales, he said, had become the "cockroaches of the ocean" and could be used by whaling nations in a sustainable way. Japanese officials say that whale meat consumption is part of its tradition and that other countries should respect this cultural factor.

Komatsu said that Japan had to use the "tools of diplomatic communications and promises of overseas development aid to influence members of the International Whaling Commission."

Japan, he said, does not have military powers unlike the United States or Australia. "In order to get appreciation of Japan's position, of course, it is natural we must resort to those two major tools," he said.

Poor nations under pressure from Japan
Japan won the support of six Caribbean countries, the Solomon Islands and Guinea with such "persuasion" -- persuasion that countries like Antigua and Barbuda conceded and called a pragmatic quid pro quo situation.

This year at least three other countries getting substantial Japanese aid -- Peru, Morocco and Panama -- are joining the commission.

Japan undertakes annual whale hunts under a clause that permits killing whales for scientific research. The clause goes on to say that once whales are killed, their meat must be consumed and not allowed to go to waste. Japan says it consumes whale meat -- an expensive delicacy -- only as a byproduct of research.

This position is "brazenly arrogant," said Stewart. "Japan is working not on the strength of its argument but on the strength of its currency."

This week, the commission voted 21 to 14 for a resolution urging Japan to stop its scientific kills of Antarctic minkes. It also passed a resolution by 21 votes to 15 urging Norway "to halt immediately all whaling activities under its jurisdiction."

But both countries said they would continue to kill whales on a "sustainable" basis.

Japan and Norway failed to overturn the ban on commercial whaling, but blocked a proposal led by Brazil, Australia and New Zealand to create sanctuaries for whales in the Pacific and the Atlantic.

The proposal needed a three-quarters vote to succeed but managed to get only about two-thirds.

Twenty countries voted for the South Pacific sanctuary, 13 voted against and four abstained. In the South Atlantic vote, 19 countries favored the sanctuary, 13 were against and five abstained.

The week-long conference was a week of repeated battles between the two camps.

The first battleground was Iceland, which lost a bid to be readmitted into the whaling commission. But Iceland, which quit in 1992, insisted on joining with a reservation clause that would give it the right to continue whaling as a commission member.

It sought protection of a clause Norway invokes to continue whaling as a member of the commission. Under this clause, Norway claims that the ban does not apply because it posted a reservation when the ban took effect.

An Indian delegate said the vote over Iceland was fought furiously. "I had calls from delegates from Japan and Norway and from almost every country backing them," he told IPS. "They wanted us to abstain, but that vote was won by a single vote, and abstaining would have given the whaling camp a significant victory."

But Iceland Fisheries Minister Arni Mathiesen said that the refusal of its application to rejoin the IWC would have no effect on its whaling policy.

The vote of the whaling commission is not legally binding on members or on non-members. But the commission carries considerable clout as a trade and environmental body with strong backing from the governments of member countries.

Even with its loopholes, the ban on commercial whaling has meant protection for many species of whales, supporters of the ban say. "You can bet your bottom dollar that if it were not for this ban, Japan and Norway would kill a lot more whales," said Stewart.

The balance at the commission this time was about 50:50. It might not stay that way after Tokyo.

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Albion Monitor August 6, 2001 (

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