Australia rallies to the defence of its humpbacks in the face of Japanese cull

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The Independent Online

The first humpbacks of the season could be seen frolicking off a Sydney beach this week, but if Japan gets its way, the whales could soon be slaughtered for "scientific" reasons.

The first humpbacks of the season could be seen frolicking off a Sydney beach this week, but if Japan gets its way, the whales could soon be slaughtered for "scientific" reasons.

Tokyo wants to add 50 humpbacks a year to its harvest, and is lobbying members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) ahead of a meeting in South Korea next month. The species is considered endangered, and is on a list of protected whales.

Thousands of humpbacks and southern right whales migrate up Australia's east coast from Antarctica during the southern hemisphere winter, heading for warm waters off Queensland where they breed. Whale watching is popular among locals and tourists, and tabloid newspapers have condemned Japan for targeting "Aussie whales". The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, took the unusual step this week of intervening personally in a dispute that threatens to affect diplomatic relations.

He wrote to his Japanese counterpart, Junichiro Koizumi, urging him to abandon plans to double the nation's catch of minke whales as well as adding two new species to its shopping list: humpbacks and fin whales. Mr Koizumi has yet to reply, but senior Japanese officials made clear he has no intention of bowing to foreign pressure. Jiro Kodera, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese embassy in Canberra, said in an interview: "there is no such thing as an Australian whale".

Joji Marishita, Japan's head of whaling negotiations, accused Mr Howard of being ill-informed about the science of whaling. "The only way to solve this difficult issue is not to inflate the emotional side," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "We should look at science and international law." Mr Morishita said Australians would object to being ordered to stop eating kangaroo, which some outside the country might consider"barbaric".

The IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, but Japan circumvents it by claiming that its annual hunt - in which 400 minkes are killed - is conducted for scientific purposes. The whale meat, considered a delicacy in Japan, ends up in shops and gourmet restaurants.

The Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, told parliament yesterday that the government would enlist support from anti-whaling countries before the IWC meeting. "While [whale] stock numbers remain under threat, it's clear Japan's whaling programme cannot be described as science," he said.

Japan, which is Australia's largest export destination, has been lobbying small IWC nations such as the Solomon Islands in an effort to secure support.

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