Japan Sharpens Its Harpoons
By Suvendrini Kakuchi*
The Asian nation hopes to win the support of Morocco, Peru, Russia and Philippines at an International Whaling Commission meeting in late July for its bid to resume commercial whaling.
TOKYO - Japan will make a new attempt to open the doors to commercial whaling, despite strong opposition from the United States and from environmental groups, at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to be held in London late July.
Japan is proposing to hunt sperm and Bryde's whales in addition to minke whales for presumably scientific objectives, arguing that whale populations are on the rise.
These marine mammals, which can reach 30 meters in length - the largest in the animal kingdom -, are especially sought after by the Japanese, who have traditionally hunted whales for their meat.
The IWC, entrusted with overseeing the preservation of whales worldwide, has issued a condemnation against Japan every year due to its commercial hunting. The Commission is slated to meet yet again, July 23-27, to discuss the matter.
Tokyo has rejected a new proposal by Brazil and Argentina to set up a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic, home to the right whale, and has criticized another preserve, sponsored by Australia and New Zealand, in the South Pacific.
Japanese officials loudly opposed the idea last year and say they will shoot it down this time as well.
The IWC banned whaling in 1986 in the wake of depleting stocks of major species of whale, such as the sperm and minke.
But a year later, it authorized Japan to carry out two whaling hunts under a research program aimed at collecting data to "provide necessary data to establish a viable resource management scheme for whale populations."
Whales are protected under Annex I of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which bans imports, exports or any other type of commercial transaction of certain animals and plants.
Environmental groups accuse Japan's research whaling as a guise to keeping up the lucrative whaling industry, noting the whale meat is sold to restaurants and shops, though at prices much higher than in the past.
They also want Japan to stop killing whales for scientific research and are lobbying hard for the IWC to discontinue authorizations for the practice.
Last year the government-sponsored Japan Whaling Association reported that the country consumed 2,500 tons of whale meat from December 1999 to November 2000.
"The whale meat was supplied from coastal whaling as well as from whales killed during scientific hunts. In this way the meat is not wasted," explains Komoru Kubo, spokesman for the Japan Whaling Association.
Japanese officials also point out that certain whale populations, such as minke, are growing. Official estimates say populations currently surpass 750,000 in the South Pacific.
But anti-whaling countries, led by the United States, have rejected these arguments.
The United States decided last December to keep Japan's whaling program under surveillance and has called for a re-examination of data on the world's total whale population.
In a bid to defuse the growing tensions, the two countries are holding working-level meetings in the British capital ahead of the IWC conference.
However, Japan is hoping to gain the support of four countries - Morocco, Peru, Russia and Philippines – to tip the balance in favor of a resumption of commercial whaling.
Japan also expects to win backing from six Caribbean nations. Motoji Nagasawa of Greenpeace Japan, claims the government is using its international aid program to buy the votes of the tiny islands.
Another point in Japan's favor is the planned return to the IWC of Iceland, a whaling country that walked out of the Commission in 1992 in protest of the whaling ban.
"There is a new sentiment," says Kubo. "I see a softening in the strong anti-whaling sentiment that prevailed in the 1980s."
The Whaling Association spokesman insists Japan is not against conservation. "Our policy is to use natural resources in a scientific way. We abide by the strict regulations," he said.
Shigeki Komori, conservation officer at World Wildlife Fund - Japan, maintains that Tokyo is desperate to protect its whaling industry.
Experts say whale meat sold in the Japanese market fetches around 80 million dollars annually. The industry employs more than 1,000 people, including 450 whalers. Government subsidies for the sector reach four million dollars a year.
In early May, Japan marked its second hunt for the year by sending two ships, including whalers and scientists, to the north Pacific Ocean, where they joined three other vessels as part of a research mission.
Whalers recorded a catch of 100 minke, 50 Bryde's and 10 sperm whales, drawing harsh criticism from the United States, as both the Bryde's and sperm species are protected under US law.
The results of the hunt represent notably higher numbers than last year, when 43 Bryde's, five sperm, and 40 minke whales were caught in the Aug 1-Sept 16 period, under a two-year program aimed at collecting scientific data.
Whaling is one of the few issues on which Japan remains inflexible, despite pressures from the international community.
The Pacific nation did not even bend when the United States, its closest ally, threatened last year to impose a trade ban if Tokyo did not comply with international whaling rules.
* Suvendrini Kakuchi is an IPS correspondent.