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Sunday, 13 October, 2002, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
Inuit demand whale catch
Two bowheads from above  (photo: Noaa)
The Inuit want bowheads, the Japanese want minkes (Image: Noaa)

A whaling dispute which is setting remote Arctic communities against the Japanese Government could soon be resolved.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is holding a special meeting on 14 October to try to heal the rift.

The future of about 80 bowhead whales and 50 minkes annually depends on the outcome.

The IWC itself could be at risk if the meeting ends without a solution.

Although a moratorium on commercial whaling has been in effect since 1986, the IWC has always allowed small communities, mainly in the Caribbean and the Arctic, to continue to catch a few whales.

Japanese whaler leaves port   AP
Off to sea in search of minkes
It accepts their argument that the catch is both traditional and necessary for their survival.

Until this year, applications for this "aboriginal subsistence whaling" to continue have gone through on the nod at the IWC's annual meetings.

But when it met last May in the Japanese whaling port of Shimonoseki, Japan refused to agree a quota for the Inuit and Chukotka people of Alaska and Arctic Russia.

Japan wants the IWC to lift the moratorium so it can resume commercial whaling, catching animals from species which it regards as a sustainable resource.

It supports subsistence whaling, too.

Japanese protest

The only reason Japan voted against the Arctic quota was to protest against the refusal to allow its own coastal communities to resume whaling.

It accused the IWC of double standards, and the US and Russia were left with nothing to offer their Arctic whalers.

Japan has been asking the IWC for a coastal quota for years, but has always been refused, although it does catch about 700 whales a year for research - this is allowed under Commission rules.

Minke being hauled aboard Japanese boat
The IWC says Japan's coastal whalers need help

It wants to catch 50 minkes a year off its coasts.

Globally, the minkes are thought to be relatively abundant.

The Arctic quota would allow the killing of about 80 bowheads annually.

Local people say they are not endangered, though not all conservationists agree.

To try to end the row, the IWC has summoned a special meeting, the fifth to be held in its 56-year existence.

IWC under pressure

The meeting will be in Cambridge, UK, where the IWC is based, with the main item on the agenda a joint US-Russian compromise proposal.

The Commission says the meeting is expected to end by early afternoon, but that may be over-optimistic.

Japan is unlikely to give way unless it is allowed its allocation of minkes, something it has sought in vain for 15 years.

But for the anti-whaling nations, still probably a majority in the IWC, to agree to the Japanese demand would be a radical abandonment of their long-held opposition.

One observer told BBC News Online: "Originally I thought the Commission would be able to sort this out pretty straightforwardly, but now the meeting is almost on us I'm not so sure.

"I still think the deal will go through somehow. If it doesn't, then the IWC will be in really deep trouble."

Bowhead image courtesy and copyright of US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

See also:

24 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
24 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
23 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
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