Japan fights to end 16-year whaling ban

The richest and tastiest part of a whale – the cut known as whale steak – is as red, bloody and tender as expensive beef and, like most Japanese ports, the city of Shimonoseki has a handful of restaurants where it can be eaten.

At The Whale Place, you can buy whale steak, whale bacon and whale tongue – yesterday they were even doing whale burgers and whale dogs. It's a gimmick to draw in the younger crowd, as well as the delegates at the big conference down the road.

For as the men munch on their burgers in The Whale Place, the city's conference centre will today host one of the most antagonistic gatherings in the world: the annual plenary session of the International Whaling Commission. Previous IWC meetings have seen walk-outs, allegations of bribery and ill-disguised bitterness between pro- and anti-whaling factions. This year's gathering – hosted by the leader of the pro-whaling world – promises to be even nastier than usual.

Campaigners from across Japan demonstrated in the city yesterday. Anti-whaling activists sang songs and pro-whaling local residents sold whale stew at a park.

At the centre of the conflict is the future of the 16-year-old commercial whaling ban imposed by the IWC after overwhelming evidence that the world's largest mammals were being driven to extinction. Every year the Japanese propose the lifting of the moratorium, which requires a three-quarters majority of IWC members; every year it fails. But this year the vote is expected to be closer than ever.

Pro-whaling members of the IWC, which include Norway, China and Russia, argue many whale species have now reached safe levels – a 1990 survey found there were 760,000 minke whales, for example.

"Japan has no intention of utilising endangered and highly depleted species," an official of Japan's Fisheries Agency says. "We only would like to utilise abundant species such as minke whales in a sustainable manner."

Opponents of whaling are sceptical about the 12-year-old figures on which the Japanese position is based. Whales are difficult to count and they breed slowly. But most IWC members, including the British Government, oppose commercial whaling under any circumstances. The Fisheries Minister, Elliot Morley, said: "We will continue to oppose whaling and call for an end to this unnecessary and cruel activity."

Anti-whaling activists cite another objection: that the Japanese government has shown such bad faith over the years that it is not to be trusted on "sustainable utilisation".

Take, as an example, Japan's so-called "scientific whaling". Every year a whaling fleet sails out of Shimonoseki to return with between 400 and 500 deep-frozen whales for "research". It is their meat which finds its way into restaurants such as The Whale Place. When Japan announced last month that it would take an extra 50 whales for "research" this year, there was worldwide fury.

Even more controversial is the support Japan draws from small developing countries with few historical links to whaling. Caribbean states like St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada and Dominica consistently vote with Japan in the IWC; opponents claim this is because of the aid they receive from the Japanese government. Landlocked Mongolia announced yesterday that it was joining the IWC, a move that rekindled accusations of Japanese vote-buying.

"It's hard to imagine why Mongolia would suddenly develop an interest in whaling," Simon Ready of Greenpeace said. "For the first time in years, the pro-whalers may have a majority."

Iceland, trying to be readmitted to the IWC a decade after storming out in protest at the ban, said it would support ending the moratorium if allowed to return in a vote today.

But why is the Japanese government prepared to brave international wrath in defence of whaling? Polls suggest that while many Japanese support its resumption, the predominant feeling is indifference. One poll showed 61 per cent of Japanese had either never eaten whale or not eaten it since childhood. "Japan doesn't have a whaling industry anymore; Japanese don't have an appetite for whale meat," says Motoji Nagasawa of Greenpeace Japan. "It is the pride of bureaucrats. They just don't like to be seen to lose."

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