PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico (AP) - The United States and France led a final push Thursday to create an Antarctic sanctuary for dwindling whale populations, claiming enough support for a victory at an international conference.
Clearing the way for a vote by the International Whaling Commission, France agreed Wednesday to redraw the boundaries of its original proposal to skirt Chile. Balloting could come as early as Thursday.
"If the vote bears out, this will be a bigger victory than the 1986 moratorium on all commercial whaling," said Sidney Holtz, a British biologist who helped draft the plan. "The moratorium on whale hunting was approved as a temporary measure but this sanctuary will last indefinitely if it is approved.'," said Holtz. .
He said blue whales, hunted down to about 450, and humpbacks now numbering only in a few thousand are among several overhunted species that could come back though not to their original numbers in a sanctuary.
France proposed Wednesday that a safe haven extend north to the 40th South Parallel, touching parts of Chile, Argentina and New Zealand. Chile objected, saying that would cross its territorial waters, but was satisifed by the compromise that drew a jagged line dipping below Chile and Argentina on a zig-zag course between the 40th and 60th southern parallels.
The new haven would be smaller than France's original no one knows yet by how much but would still cover up to 11 million square miles (28.5 million square kms) of waters ringing Antarctica.
Some supporters feared whaling nations Japan and Norway might back last-minute delaying tactics with four Caribbean nations opposed to sanctuary.
Japan kills some 300 minke whales a year in Antarctic waters under a loophole that allows scientific research hunts; the sanctuary would not prevent this continuing. It would, however, frustrate Japan's hopes of expanding this to a larger commercial hunt. There are about 800,000 minkes, smallest of the great whales, around the Antarctic.
Michael Sutton of the US-based World Wildlife Fund said the plan would effectively block Japan from hunting minke whales in Antarctic waters. Minkes, the last great whale species remaining in large numbers, total an estimated 760,000 in the Antarctic and are believed to number another 87,000 in the North Atlantic.
If the opposition holds at six nations, at least 18 "yes" votes would be required to create the sanctuary. Approval requires the support of three quarters of commission members who cast a final vote. Abstentions do not count.
The proposal had 19 formal pledges of support on Wednesday.
Ichiro Nomura, a Japanese delegate, looked gloomy late Wednesday as supporters of sanctuary toasted the proposal at a reception. Asked for his reaction, he responded tersely: "Just guess."
Norwegian delegate Karsten Kepsvik said he felt the Japanese effort to defeat the sanctuary was now lost. "I can't imagine anything standing in the way of this proposal now," said Kepsvik.
Other nations said to be backing the new plan included Antigua, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Finland, Ireland, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.Reuse content