Norway's whalers rattle their harpoons

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NORWAY has begun a diplomatic offensive aimed at persuading member nations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to tolerate its defiant resumption of the slaughter of minke whales.

Harpooned minke whales are taking less time to die, thanks to intensive training of the harpoonists and stricter rules of engagement, said Karsten Klepsvik, the plain-speaking leader of the Norwegian delegation to the commission, during a visit to London.

But his chief argument is that the 300 or so minkes Norway wishes to take from the 87,000 in the north-east Atlantic complies with both the letter and spirit of the commission's rules - and represents absolutely no threat to the species' survival. Ambassador Klepsvik plans to call on two thirds of the 31 IWC member nations between now and its next annual meeting in Mexico.

'Most of all it is a question of principle,' he told the Independent. 'We're a small nation heavily dependent on our marine resources, and if we can demonstrate that we can exploit them sustainably then we must be allowed to. If we're ruled by public sentiments and not through reason, facts and scientific principles how can the world's real environmental problems ever be sold?'

At the annual meeting in Japan last May a majority of nations had voted to continue with the six-year-old ban. But Norway exercised its right to object and this year 32 boats harpooned 226 minkes.

Mr Klepsvik said the whales were now being despatched more swiftly than in 1986, the last time Norway whaled commercially. Harpoonists' rules on the angle and the nearness of the target before firing had been tightened. A higher proportion of minkes were being killed outright and 'the mean time to death' had fallen.

He admitted that two boats had performed more poorly than the others. 'Maybe they're not very good shots,' he said. He shrugged off the boycott of Norwegian fish by the Safeway supermarket chain in Britain, prompted by Greenpeace lobbying. 'Our UK exports are increasing.'

He takes the threat of US trade sanctions more seriously. The Clinton administration strongly opposes commercial whaling but has so far only issued warnings. Will whaling prejudice Norway's prospects of European Union membership? 'It is an issue but I think there will be a solution. I'd be surprised if membership depended on the whaling issue,' he said.

He wants the IWC to agree a method for computing how many whales can be harpooned each year, giving quotas to countries and monitoring their compliance. The anti-whaling majority of nations have sought to spin out the arguments. The ambassador hopes his tour will persuade them to change their minds.

'It's a tough task but someone has to do it,' he says. 'We'll give it one last shot.'