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Last Updated: Monday, 19 July, 2004, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
Japan seeks commercial whaling OK
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent, in Sorrento, Italy

Minke whale, WSPA
Minke whales reach about 10m at maturity (Image: Francois Gohier)
Japan has asked the International Whaling Commission to let it restart the commercial hunting of whales.

It wants to kill almost 3,000 Antarctic minkes, nearly five times its current annual catch for scientific research.

But BBC News Online has learnt the move is a stratagem designed simply to discredit the IWC, which is certain to reject the proposal.

The meeting is split between a dwindling anti-whaling majority and a growing whaling group, led by Japan.

Tokyo has respected the moratorium on commercial whaling agreed by the IWC since it came into effect in 1986.

Commission's purpose

It now says it wants to catch 2,914 minkes, the smallest of the great whales at about 10m long at maturity.

A statement by Japan's Fisheries Agency said this proposed annual quota represented less than 0.05% of the Antarctic minke population, which the IWC scientific committee estimated in 1990 at 760,000 animals.

Minke whales are extremely abundant in the Southern Ocean - the population will be able to fully sustain the proposed quota
Minoru Morimoto, Japan delegation
The committee is working to update this estimate. The leader of Japan's delegation at the IWC, Mr Minoru Morimoto, said: "Minke whales are extremely abundant in the Southern Ocean - the population will be able to fully sustain the proposed quota and at the same time maintain its current healthy abundance levels."

He said part of the profit would be put towards "the welfare of the world's people" and the rational use and management of global whale resources.

In a telling passage, he said: "The IWC was developed to establish the commercial whaling industry. The resumption of sustainable whaling in the Antarctic will validate the continuing existence of the IWC... "

Mr Morimoto did not add that many IWC members - still a majority, if only just - want the commission to conserve whales, not the whaling it was established to protect.

Threatened walk

The proposal for a commercial catch flies in the face of Japan's policy down the years.

Although it catches not only minke but sei, Bryde's and sperm whales in the Antarctic and the North Pacific, it does so in the name of research, which the IWC's rules allow.

It has never until now suggested that it would contemplate a resumption of commercial hunting.

One source told BBC News Online: "Japan knows perfectly well the commission won't accept its proposal, and it has no intention of starting commercial whaling again.

"This is all about showing that the IWC doesn't work, to strengthen Japan's hand in preparing to walk out."

Secret ballots

In his opening statement to the meeting, Mr Morimoto said the general public and parliamentarians had "come to the end of their patience" with the IWC, and another member of the delegation told BBC News Online Japan would withdraw in 2006 if it were still dissatisfied.

It says it will continue its scientific whaling in the Antarctic and increase its catches in the North Pacific.

Norway says it plans to increase its annual commercial catch of 6-700 North Atlantic minke whales, possibly to 1,800 animals, by 2008. Because it objected to the moratorium when it was agreed, Norway is not bound by it.

Japan came close on Monday to making sure IWC votes were taken through secret ballots. It claimed this would protect smaller nations on the commission from economic and political pressure from anti-whaling countries and organisations.

The move was defeated by 29 votes to 24.

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