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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 01:44 GMT 02:44 UK
Leaders 'ignore public' on whales
By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website, St Kitts

Whale schematic (BBC)

The backing given by some developing country governments for whaling is not supported by their citizens, according to an opinion poll.

It comes on the eve of the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in St Kitts.

The environmental group WWF commissioned research in nine Pacific and Caribbean countries which usually vote with pro-whaling Japan.

Japan is hoping to win a vote at the meeting to end a ban on whale hunting.

There are signs that Japan and its supporters are in the majority and may be successful.

But according to the WWF poll, in all but one of the Pacific and Caribbean countries, more people opposed whaling than supported it.

Governments are ignoring public opinion and claiming to vote for whaling on behalf of their citizens
Sue Lieberman

The poll also showed opposition in a tenth country, the Marshall Islands, which has joined the IWC within the last month, reportedly at the behest of Japan.

WWF is urging delegates from these countries to vote according to the poll results.

"The evidence is overwhelming," said Sue Lieberman, head of WWF's global species programme.

"Governments are ignoring public opinion and claiming to vote for whaling on behalf of their citizens."

WWF commissioned surveys in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Palau, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu, asking the question: "Do you think your country should vote for or against a return to commercial whaling?"

The strongest response came from Antigua and Barbuda, where 79% voted "no" and 14% "yes"; the only country responding in favour was Grenada, and that by only 1%.

'Principled position'

Anthony Liverpool, Antigua and Barbuda's whaling commissioner, said his government's voting position at the IWC was not simply based on whaling, but on a wider goal of ensuring sustainable use of its own natural resources.

"I really think it's an unfair question to put to the majority of Antiguans and Barbudans, because Antigua and Barbuda does not have a history or tradition or culture of whaling; the majority of our people are not very knowledgeable about whaling," he told BBC News.

"The government's position at the IWC is a principled position on the importance of using our marine resources in a manner and at a rate that will enable that resource to last for generations."

Each national poll involved 200 people in the Pacific states involved, 300 in the Caribbean nations.

On the edge

WWF released its survey on the eve of what may be the most important whaling conference in 20 years, since the global moratorium on hunting "great whales" such as humpbacks and fin whales came into force.

Canned whale meat on sale in Tokyo
Japan says that hunting whales is its sovereign right
The early indications are that the pro-whaling bloc led by Japan will command a majority, though the true balance of power will emerge only when it is clear how many delegates have come to the meeting and paid their subscriptions, enabling them to vote.

Within the last month Cambodia, Guatemala, Israel and the Marshall Islands have joined the IWC, and of those only Israel looks set to side with the anti-whaling bloc.

Japan's alternate (deputy) whaling commissioner, Joji Morishita, believes the IWC is heading in the wrong direction; having been established to regulate whaling, he said, it now seeks to prevent it.

"We believe the IWC is a resource-management organisation," he told BBC News, "but this one is not doing its job."

Modern understanding

If it does command a majority, Japan wants to "normalise" the IWC, which may involve removing programmes looking at whale welfare and small cetaceans such as dolphins, and will certainly move it back towards its original purpose of regulating commercial whaling.

"It's exactly the same as the conservation and management of any other fisheries or wildlife resources," said Mr Morishita.

"It's fine for some countries to have a special animal or to see some animal as sacred, but it's not correct to impose that way of thinking on other countries; we have no logical reason to treat whales differently from the rest of the animal kingdom."

[The IWC] is a club where we're talking about the conservation, the welfare, the management of whales in a non-lethal manner
Leah Garces, WSPA
Conservation groups and the anti-whaling bloc of countries, which numbers Australia and New Zealand among its most vocal members, maintain that public opinion and science have moved on, and the IWC, by focussing on conservation, is reflecting the public will and modern understanding of the population status and sentience of whales.

"Since many years, a quarter of a century ago, things have changed - it's no longer a whaling club," said Leah Garces of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).

"This is a club where we're talking about the conservation, the welfare, the management of whales in a non-lethal manner in a way which will protect them for future generations."

If Japan gets its way when voting begins, it may not be such a club for much longer.



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