Canned! Food firms bale out of whaling in face of global consumer protest

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Japan's ruthless push for the return of commercial whaling received a significant setback yesterday when pressure from green campaigners forced five big food companies to pull out of supporting the Japanese whaling industry.

The five firms, led by the Japanese seafood giant Nissui and its wholly-owned US frozen foods subsidiary Gortons, said they would divest their one-third share in Japan's largest operator of whaling ships, Kyodo Senpaku. The firm runs seven of the eight whaling ships in Japan.

The move follows months of campaigning by environmental cyber-activists, who sent thousands of e-mails to the firms demanding they end their support for the industry.

It could not come at a more vital moment, as 2006 is shaping up to be the most critical year for the whale since the international whaling moratorium was brought in 20 years ago. More than 2,000 whales, the highest number for a generation, are being slaughtered annually by the three countries continuing whaling in defiance of world opinion - Japan, Norway and Iceland.

Crucially, this year the pro-whaling nations look likely to achieve their first majority in whaling's regulatory body, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), following a diplomatic campaign by Japan to get small developing countries to join the IWC and vote in its favour by offering them substantial aid.

Over the past six years, at least 14 nations have been recruited to the IWC as Japan's supporters. Most of them have no whaling tradition. Some of the newcomers, such as Mongolia and Mali, do not even have a coastline.

A majority was expected at last year's meeting in South Korea, but one of the new member countries, Gambia, inexplicably failed to turn up. At this year's meeting in St Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies in June, a pro-whaling majority is more likely to be secured.

A 51 per cent majority will not secure the scrapping of the 1986 moratorium - that needs a majority of 75 per cent - but it will be a huge propaganda coup for the whaling nations, and will enable them to bring in other measures, such as secret voting, which may well bring the crucial majority nearer. In these circumstances, yesterday's decision by the five firms to withdraw support for Japan's whaling activities takes on even more significance.

The intensity of the campaign against the five companies drove their whaling connections near the top of search engines when consumers went looking for information about their products. As well as Nissui and Gortons, which is one of America's largest frozen seafood companies, the companies include the New Zealand food processing firm Sealord and Canada's Bluewater Seafoods.

"After only a few months of consumer protest, the fragile commercial interest in whaling has collapsed," said Shane Rattenbury of Greenpeace International on the organisation's website. "Whaling is bad for business."

Nissui denied it had succumbed to pressure and said it was merely transferring shares to "public interest corporations". A notice on its website read: "We are committed to redouble our efforts to promoting sustainable utilisation of whale resources."

Since the worldwide commercial whaling ban, Japan has engaged in what it calls "scientific whaling" despite intense criticism from its political allies and international environmental groups. Japan's fleet is legally allowed to hunt about 1,000 whales a year for "research purposes" and since the ban it has killed more than 5,000 minke whales. The Japanese whaling industry

recently sparked outrage when it emerged that whale meat was ending up in pet food. Last year, a restaurant chain began selling whale burgers in an attempt to revive interest in a culinary tradition once widely practised, but with just 4 per cent of Japanese consumers eating whale meat, stocks have doubled to 4,800 tons in a decade, according to environmental researchers.

Greenpeace said taking the fight against whaling from the "high seas to the high street" had proved that the consumer could be mobilised for good causes. "This is a gorgeous example of the power of consumers in today's globalised markets," said Adele Major of Greenpeace International. "We've moused them into submission."