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Monday, 23 July, 2001, 20:47 GMT 21:47 UK
Angry split at whaling meeting
Minke whale killed by a Norwegian whalers
The killing of some whales has continued despite the ban
The annual conference of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) got off to a fiery start after Iceland's voting rights were revoked because it refused to recognise a 15-year-old moratorium on commercial whaling.

The move, which Iceland angrily attacked as "illegal", could make it more difficult for pro-whaling countries to overturn the ban.

Analysts said the IWC's 38 voting members were split almost evenly on lifting the moratorium. The vote needs three-quarters approval to be passed.

We think whales should be seen and not hurt

Inaoko Funahashi, Japanese IFAW spokesman
Iceland left the IWC nine years ago in protest at the commission's anti-whaling stance. It reapplied for membership last month, amid reports that Japan and Norway, the other main pro-whaling countries, were garnering support for lifting the ban.

They are opposed by the UK, Australia and America, among others, who say maintaining the ban is the only way to ensure depleted whale numbers can recover.

The IWC voted to suspend Iceland's voting rights by 19 votes to three, with 16 suspensions.

Stefan Asmundsson, Iceland's whaling commissioner, said the vote was invalid and Iceland remained a full member of the IWC.

"The Commission does not have the competence to make this ruling," he said.

Killing continues

The moratorium's supporters are essentially fighting a rearguard action to keep it intact. In the 15 years since the prohibition came into force, thousands of whales have been killed.

IWC rules allow unlimited catches of any species in the name of scientific research, and Japan has been hunting the relatively abundant minke whales in the Antarctic for some years.

A Japanese delegate to the talks was criticised by conservationists after he described minke whales as "cockroaches of the seas", adding that "there are too many of them".

Japan has recently extended the hunt to take small numbers of minkes, sperm and Bryde's whales, which are much less numerous, in the north Pacific.

The environmental pressure group Greenpeace says Japan has secured support for lifting the ban by bribing a number of countries, including six east Caribbean states, the Solomon Islands and Guinea.

Saving the whale
IWC - established in 1946, now has 46 members
Britain ceased whaling in 1963
Minke whales number 750,000 in Antarctica alone
Whale-watching is a 710m industry worldwide
Norway is not bound by the moratorium because it objected to it in the first place.

It kills around 500 minkes in the north Atlantic every year. There is also some limited whaling by indigenous communities in the Arctic and the Caribbean, again permitted by the IWC.

Tourist trade

In a report released to coincide with the meeting, the International Fund for Animal Welfare [IFAW] says Japan, Norway and Iceland have all generated sizeable incomes from a growing whale-watching industry.

The study claims the activity is now worth 710m worldwide.

Japans' IFAW spokesman, Inaoko Funahashi, said: "No doubt whale-watchers in Japan, Norway and Iceland are wondering why their governments want to kill this precious resource. We think whales should be seen and not hurt."

Greenpeace activists and the Japanese whaling ship Toshi
Conservationists argue that whales are intelligent creatures
The IWC was set up more than 50 years ago, charged with conserving both whales and whaling. Twenty years ago, a clear majority of members favoured a purely conservationist role for the commission.

They argued that the depredations of the commercial whaling years meant the world's severely depleted populations should be left in peace, in the hope that they might recover.

Some appear to have begun to do so: the minkes and the gray whales are doing comparatively well.

But there is hardly any sign of growth in the numbers of blue whales, the largest creatures ever to have lived on Earth.

Estimated at more than 250,000 in their prime, the blue whales are now thought to number perhaps as few as 5,000.

The BBC's Paul Anstiss
"Supporters of the moratorium feel it must stay in place"
The BBC's Christine McGourty
"It has been a very difficult meeting"
The BBC's Jon Manel
"A Japanese official... appeared to say financial aid... is used to secure support from other nations"
See also:

18 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan admits trading whale votes
27 Oct 00 | Newsnight
Buying votes from Dominica
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