Japan rallies support to end global whaling ban

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Ominous news for the great whales. Nearly 20 years after commercial whaling was officially banned, its return may come a significant step closer this week.

Ominous news for the great whales. Nearly 20 years after commercial whaling was officially banned, its return may come a significant step closer this week.

For the first time, the pro-whaling countries, Japan, Norway and Iceland, may win a majority of votes in whaling's regulatory body, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which today begins its week-long annual meeting at the former Korean whaling port of Ulsan.

A simple 51 per cent majority will not enable the whaling nations to overturn the moratoriumintroduced in 1986; that requires an IWC vote of 75 per cent. But it would allow them to take steps to bring the end of the ban closer, by introducing secret ballots, meaning that countries which voted for whaling could not be identified, so would not have to justify their actions.

It would mean the Japan-ese programme of so-called "scientific" whaling, which much of the world regards as commercial whaling in disguise, could - for the first time - win official IWC endorsement.

Even more, the first majority vote to go back to killing some of the world's most vulnerable animals would be an enormous morale-booster for the whaling nations, and a major shift in the political dynamics of the issue.

The possibility has been brought about by Japan's untiring campaign to recruit poor developing countries to the IWC and secure their support by offering them large amounts of aid.

Over the past six years, in return for an airport here or a set of port facilities there, the Japanese have brought into the IWC, as their supporters, at least 14 new member nations which not only have no discernible whaling tradition, but even, in the case of countries such as Mali and Mongolia, have no discernible coastline.

The IWC, which began in 1947 with 30 members, now appears to have 66, with nine new members joining in the past year alone, although no one will be quite sure of the real figure until the meeting opens.

The anti-whaling nations, led by the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand, together with environmental pressure groups, are anxiously doing the arithmetic and not liking what they see. "It doesn't look too clever," a British source admitted.

Britain and its allies remain firmly opposed to the return of commercial whaling on grounds both of conservation - some whale populations, such as those of the blue whale, the world's largest animal, have been brought close to extinction by the harpoon - and of cruelty. Their view is that the amount of violence needed to kill such huge animals is simply unacceptable, and it cannot be done humanely.

But the Japanese and the Norwegians, nations with long and powerful whaling traditions, have never accepted these arguments. The Japanese have continued whaling under the guise of science, and the Norwegians have continued the hunt in open defiance of the moratorium, and the whaling activities of both are expanding.

This year, the Norwegians gave their whaling fleet permission to kill 797 minke whales in the Atlantic, the highest quota yet - up from 670 in 2004 - and the Japanese are ready to double their self-imposed quota of nearly 800 whales of four species - minke, sperm, Bryde's and sei - and add kills of two new species, humpback and fin.

Their move has already attracted anger. Britain's Environment minister Ben Bradshaw, who is at the Ulsan meeting, said: "If Japan goes ahead with this, it will be sticking two fingers up at world opinion."

Willie Mackenzie, who is a Greenpeace whaling campaigner, said: "Many whales already face a huge array of threats from humanity, from the ongoing climate change to a rise in pollution, and whaling is the one threat to them we can remove immediately."