|CANBERRA - Australia will lobby South Pacific island nations this week to try to head off Japan's push to increase its annual whale hunt as Canberra steps up its diplomatic offensive against Japanese whaling.|
But the mission by Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell has received a setback, with the influential Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) signalling its support for Japanese whaling.
"Traditionally, and even now, our people do eat whale, and dugongs and animals like that. So in that sense, we do share the Japanese view to some extent," PNG's Foreign Minister Rabbie Namaliu told Reuters.
PNG is the biggest Pacific island nation after Australia, and its views carry significant weight among smaller South Pacific nations.
Japan wants to increase its annual intake of minke whales to 935 from 440 and expand its hunt to include 10 fin whales a year for the next two years. By 2007-08, Japan wants to be allowed to hunt 40 fin whales and 50 humpback whales.
It has threatened to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC) if the body votes against its plans at a meeting in South Korea on June 20.
Japan, where whale meat is a delicacy, abandoned commercial whaling in 1986 in line with an international ban, but it began hunting whales for what it calls scientific research the next year. The meat ends up in gourmet restaurants.
Japan's plan has angered Australia, which last week led a 15-nation diplomatic protest in Tokyo over whaling. Australia has said there is no scientific basis for whaling and warned of an international backlash if Japan extends its whale hunt.
Campbell, who last week toured Europe to gather support to block Japan's move, will this week visit the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Tonga to try to win the support of the smaller South Pacific island nations ahead of the June 20 meeting.
He told reporters in Perth the IWC vote could come down to one or two countries.
"Foreign affairs officials and whaling officials tell me that there's only one or two votes in this at Korea, so every country is going to count," Campbell said.
He said he would tell the island nations it was not necessary to kill the whales for scientific research.
At a meeting in New Zealand in August 2003, leaders from Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Zealand, Niue, PNG, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu all declared whale sanctuaries or protection for whales in their waters.
PNG and Tonga are not members of the IWC, but Solomon Islands and Kiribati are members and will have a vote on June 20.
Story by James Grubel
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE