|TOKYO - Whaling is a Japanese right and some whale species are so abundant they are "rampant," posing a potential threat to the ecological balance of the oceans, a key Japanese fisheries official says.|
"Eating whale is a key part of Japanese culture," said Masayuki Komatsu, a senior Fisheries Agency official and long-term delegate to the annual meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
"There are so many robust whale stocks, such as minke whales, the sei whale, the Bryde's whale," Komatsu told a gathering of journalists and officials in Tokyo this week.
"Sperm whales are rampant. They may be around twice the number of minke whales," he added, noting that they had the potential to damage the ecological balance of the oceans in the future - an argument Japan frequently uses to justify whaling.
Japan believes endangered whales should be protected but that others, such as the minke, are in no danger of dying out and hunting within limits should be allowed.
Komatsu once famously called minke whales the "cockroaches of the sea".
"There are two characteristics. One is that there are so many of both of them," he explained this week. "And the reproduction rate for those two animals is very rapid. That's why I said a minke whale is like a cockroach."
Whale was a key protein source for an impoverished Japan in the dark days following World War Two, but with prices high and supplies low, it has become an expensive gourmet food.
Tokyo takes around 700 whales a year in what it calls scientific research whaling despite a 1986 IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, and the meat from these ends up on store shelves and the tables of speciality restaurants.
Komatsu said the IWC's charter itself permits scientific whaling, and that doing so is Japan's right.
Japan's die-hard pro-whaling stance has left it increasingly at odds with world opinion, even within the IWC.
Nowhere was this more true than at the group's July meeting, which ended with the rejection of a deadline of 2005 to agree on rules for a new whaling scheme, rules that could have spelled the end of the 18-year-old commercial whaling ban.
Fisheries officials say Tokyo is biding its time until next year's IWC meeting to see if progress can be made. Japan was so angered in 2003 that it said it might consider quitting.
Komatsu said that all options remain on the table, noting that ruling party officials are also "fed up" with the IWC.
"They already declared that some studies should be done on what would be the implications of the withdrawal of Japan," he said. "But we would not of course at this point decide."
Story by Elaine Lies
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE