Harpooned: the world's fight to save the whale

Why are small nations that rely on Japanese aid joining the organisation that regulates whaling? Report by Michael McCarthy and David McNeill

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A step towards the return of commercial whaling will be taken this week if pro-whaling countries achieve - as many expect - their first majority voting bloc on whaling's governing body.

A step towards the return of commercial whaling will be taken this week if pro-whaling countries achieve - as many expect - their first majority voting bloc on whaling's governing body.

Japan, Norway and Iceland - all still hunting the great whales in defiance of the 18-year international moratorium on their killing - are on course to gain control of more than 50 per cent of the votes at the 2004 International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting, which begins in Sorrento, Italy, today.

Hitherto, the anti-whaling nations, led by the US, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, have held a controlling majority of IWC votes. But in a tireless diplomatic offensive, the Japanese have spent more than 10 years and many millions of pounds recruiting small nations to the IWC as whaling sympathisers, in return for substantial development aid.

The commission, which at its outset had only 30 members, now has 57, and the long game Japan has been playing may well bear fruit in Sorrento, when the pro-whalers are likely to achieve their majority at last.

Britain's Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) has tracked this process in detail, documenting how many small nations who now vote with the Japanese, such as St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua & Barbuda, have become overwhelmingly dependent on Japanese aid.

The process is continuing, and in recent months both the Pacific island state of Tuvalu and the Ivory Coast in Africa have applied to join the IWC, with Japanese prompting suspected - while Surinam is thought to be on the verge of applying.

Although the arithmetic is not yet completely certain, many observers believe that the new arrivals will tip the balance of votes. While not yet enabling them to abolish the whaling moratorium itself - that needs a 75 per cent majority vote - a simple majority of 51 per cent would be an encouraging development for the whaling countries towards that ultimate goal.

Furthermore, it would immediately give them considerable power to run the IWC the way they want. They could, for example, exclude environmental pressure groups and the media from the meeting, elect a new chairman, pass pro-whaling resolutions and annul anti-whaling ones, and generally make the IWC a body to promote commercial whaling rather than to regulate it.

"Tipping the balance of power means that whales will lose their safety net of protection, the moratorium will be under threat, and the world will once again hold its breath fearing for the future of these amazing animals," said Margi Prideaux of the WDCS.

Since the 1986 ban, Japan has engaged in what it calls "scientific whaling", designed to "monitor fish stocks and migration patterns," despite enormous flak from its political allies and international environmental groups, while Norway has continued to hunt commercially by simply entering an objection to the moratorium. Iceland has done a mixture of both. The three countries together have killed more than 25,000 whales since the 1986 ban started. Japan alone has hunted more than 5,000 minke whales, many of which have ended up on up-market restaurants' menus.

The issue of whaling in Japan is strongly bound up with nationalist sentiment and is one of the few international issues - perhaps the only issue - on which the country takes a hard line. The public face of Japan's pro-whaling lobby, Masayuki Komatsu, an ultra-nationalist and career diplomat at the Ministry of Agriculture, revels in upsetting what he contemptuously calls the "Save the Whalers" that dominate international debate on the issue. He once advised the captains of whaling ships to "blow Greenpeace protest boats out of the water" and regularly denounces what he calls the "culinary imperialism" of the West.

Japanese pro-whalers such as Mr Komatsu, who boasts the misleading title of director of fisheries research and environmental protection, believe that countries such as America, Australia and Britain, which have much more arable land for farming than Japan, are being hypocritical in their condemnation of whaling. "These countries can raise cows and sheep because they don't depend on the oceans for food," he said recently. "We don't have that luxury." Mr Komatsu has argued for years that whale numbers have increased to the point where they can safely be hunted again and that if not controlled they eat other fish because they are the "cockroaches of the sea".

Critics say the pro-whaling drive in Japan owes less to cultural traditions, however, than industrial and political lobbying. Japan's whaling "research fleet" is supported by the Institute of Cetacean Research, the main organisation behind the country's whaling programme, which argues that the population of minke whales has "risen tenfold" over the past 100 years. The institute, in turn, is backed by a lobby of nationalist politicians within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who depend disproportionately on votes from Japan's fishing communities. It is this push from the top that explains the fuss made over whaling in Japan, despite the great yawn the whole debate provokes from most ordinary Japanese, who now eat 40 times more hamburger meat than whale.

In a report submitted to the BBC last week, the LDP group boasted that, after years of effort, "the balance of power within the IWC" between the pro- and anti-whaling countries "has become almost equal". The report proposed forming a breakaway group from the IWC and revising Japan's payments to the organisation, which has continually blocked Tokyo's attempts to have the moratorium reversed. Greenpeace Japan says that the LDP group is working to revive the sale of whale meat around Japan, where it is currently expensive and difficult to get.

At Sorrento, a new coalition of more than 140 anti-whaling and animal welfare groups from more than 55 countries, called Whalewatch, will appeal to the whaling nations to halt all killing, on the grounds that it is simply too cruel. Its report, Troubled Waters, is a detailed scientific study of how much violence is needed to slaughter the world's largest animals in the open ocean. Its premise is that the act of killing the great whales, usually by explosive harpoons, is unacceptably cruel.

In a foreword to the report, Britain's best-known naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, writes: "The following pages contain hard scientific dispassionate evidence that there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea." Peter Davies, the director general of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), one of the leading groups in the coalition, said: "Far from being a thing of the past, commercial whaling is threatening to rear its ugly head and scourge our seas. The future of whales is on a knife-edge, with pro-whaling nations having a real chance of achieving a majority voting bloc that could jeopardise existing restrictions on whaling. The Whalewatch coalition believes that whaling is inherently cruel."

The technology used for killing whales has altered little since the 19th century, when the grenade-tipped harpoon was invented. The harpoon is intended to penetrate the whale's body before detonating, killing it by inflicting massive shock and injury. Given the constantly moving environment in which whales live and are hunted, achieving a quick clean kill is inherently difficult. Despite its destructive power, the whaler's harpoon often fails to kill its victim immediately and some whales take over an hour to die. The difficulties in hitting a whale with any degree of accuracy can be seen in the margin for human error. For instance, despite similar killing methods being used, Norway reported that one in five whales failed to die instantaneously during its 2002 hunt, while Japan reported that almost 60 per cent of whales failed to die instantaneously in its 2002-03 hunt.

None of this is likely to persuade the well-to-do clientele of one of Tokyo's top whale restaurants, Ganso Kujiraya in Shibuya, from giving up their favourite dish. Komi Morita could be found there recently tucking into a plate of whale sashimi.

"When I hear people say they don't eat whale I feel sorry for them," said Norimoto Tobayam. "It's delicious. The problem is people are too sentimental about them. I think they're cute too, but so are cows and that doesn't stop Westerners eating beef, does it?"

Cows are hardly nearing extinction though. "Neither are minke whales," says his companion Komi Morita. "Nobody in Japan wants to hunt whales to extinction. We understand the need for controls. But being told by the rest of the world that we can't eat them strikes us as odd."

THE PRO-WHALING COUNTRIES

The three leading pro-whaling nations have hunted the great whales under varying pretexts since the moratorium on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986

JAPAN

Japan has continued to kill minke whales since 1987 through a legal loophole allowing whaling for "scientific research". Japan currently kills over 400 minke whales annually in the Antarctic Ocean (a region designated by the IWC as a whale sanctuary in 1994), and 150 minke whales, 10 sperm whales, 50 Bryde's whales and 50 sei whales in the North Pacific. It is expected to expand its North Pacific hunt from 2005

NORWAY

Norway has killed minke whales in the North Atlantic since 1993 through a legal objection lodged in 1982 - when the IWC voted on the moratorium - that exempted Norway from the ban. Norway will kill 670 minke whales in the summer of 2004, and has announced that it intends to increase its self-allocated quotas as much as three-fold in the future, and is evaluating whether to start scientific whaling on other whale species

ICELAND

Iceland left the IWC in 1992 in protest at the moratorium. In 2002, at a special IWC meeting, it rejoined with a reservation against the commercial whaling moratorium. In 2003, Iceland proposed to start scientific whaling on 100 minkes, 100 fin whales, and 50 sei whales annually over two years. However, it took 36 minke whales in 2003

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