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Japan pushes for restart of commercial whaling

Japan pushes for restart of commercial whaling
SHIMONOSEKI - An international whaling meeting kicked off yesterday in a gritty fishing port in southern Japan, with the hosts hoping to win backing in their controversial quest for a resumption of commercial whaling.
Just a short drive from a fish market where customers picked over boiled whale and whale bacon, the opening session of the 43-nation International Whaling Commission (IWC) got under way with the battle drawn along familiar lines. Japan and Norway, as ever, are pressing for an end to the IWC\'s ban on commercial whaling, but face a difficult task in winning the three-quarters majority vote needed to achieve that. Japanese officials also hope to win more support for sustainable use of whale species such as minkes, which they say are numerous. \"Before the actual resumption of commercial whaling, we have to overcome many hurdles,\" Joji Morishita, deputy director of the Fisheries Agency\'s Far Seas Fisheries Division, told Reuters. But Morishita said the balance between the two sides was narrowing steadily. \"For a long time, the anti-whaling side has had a simple majority, but this is changing. The two sides are in a similar power balance, and the voting is very close now. \"At the Shimonoseki meeting, we\'d like a simple majority,\" he said. \"If that happens, the message from the IWC will change substantially.\" Nicky Grandy, IWC Secretary, said she hoped progress would be made on a key management scheme without which commercial whaling cannot be resumed. \"There\'s a lot of work to do,\" she said. \"It\'s possible, but unlikely, this will be completed here,\" she told reporters. \"I hope we can get countries to work cooperatively and make progress in various areas.\" Scientists leaving the meeting were tight-lipped, saying only that they were working through numerous papers. All IWC talks, except for the plenary session, are not made public. CONTROVERSIAL RESEARCH Japan abandoned commercial whaling in 1986 in line with an IWC moratorium, but began what it calls scientific research whaling the following year. Japan has announced plans to expand its research whaling programme to include sei whales, said by conservationists to be endangered, and this too is likely to stir controversy. If approved by the IWC, Japan\'s northern Pacific fleet hopes to take 150 minkes, 50 Bryde\'s whales, 50 sei whales and 10 sperm whales in the coming season. Seiji Ohsumi, director general of Japan\'s Institute for Cetacean Research which oversees the programme, was confident. \"This plan is based on scientific principles,\" he said. Already, though, there were hints of conflict. \"There are a lot of non-lethal methods of sampling,\" said Vincent Ridoux, a French scientist. \"Perhaps more should be done in this direction to make scientific whaling more acceptable.\" Local authorities had braced for trouble from anti-whaling protesters in Shimonoseki, a port city 825 km (490 miles) southwest of Tokyo, but there were no protests yesterday. Some in Shimonoseki hope commercial whaling will resume, remembering boom days when the harbour was full of fishing boats. \"Maybe Shimonoseki would regain some life and the economy would improve,\" said taxi driver Masaji Yamataka. \"It\'s pretty sad now.\" HOW MANY WHALES? A key issue for both sides of the whaling debate is just how many whales there are. This is especially true of minkes, which Japan says are no longer in danger and could be safely hunted. The figure usually quoted is some 760,000 in the Antarctic - agreed by the IWC in 1990. \"More recent surveys are suggesting slightly lower numbers,\" said Ray Gambell, a British whale biologist and longtime IWC secretary until he retired two years ago. \"But there are still hundreds of thousands of minkes. They\'re pretty abundant.\" Japan says the evidence is conflicting, but that any fall in minkes could be because other whale stocks are growing. Answers on numbers, though, must wait another year since a key survey early this year was postponed due to bad weather. This vagueness angers conservationists. \"The issue is not clear,\" said Motoji Nagasawa, whale campaigner at Greenpeace Japan. \"While there is even the slightest danger, no one should be whaling.\" The IWC meeting begins with the Minke Whale Assessment Group, then continues with a meeting of its Scientific Committee until May 7, followed by sub-committee meetings. The main plenary session is from May 20 to May 24. Story by Elaine Lies REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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