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Today, when the International Whaling Commission meets in South Korea, Japan will launch its annual attempt to scrap the moratorium on the commercial hunting of whales. Last year, largely by bribing smaller nations with aid, it came much nearer to getting the required number of votes to overturn the ban imposed in 1986. This year, it is widely feared than an end to the ban is a real prospect.

Today, when the International Whaling Commission meets in South Korea, Japan will launch its annual attempt to scrap the moratorium on the commercial hunting of whales. Last year, largely by bribing smaller nations with aid, it came much nearer to getting the required number of votes to overturn the ban imposed in 1986. This year, it is widely feared than an end to the ban is a real prospect.

What Japan is proposing is deceptively reassuring. A new management scheme, we are told, would subject whalers to tight controls. International monitors would accompany whaling expeditions. Whale meat in restaurants would be subject to DNA tests to ensure that it was legitimately caught. The quid pro quo, of course, would be an end to the moratorium. Japan hopes to be allowed to hunt hundreds of minke, and even humpbacks by 2007.

Yet the moratorium is the one real safeguard for the world's whale populations, still recovering from being hunted to the brink of extinction in the early 1980s. And the proposed scheme contains no sanctions for nations that flaunt it. Scrapping the moratorium would lead to a free-for-all. It is salutary to remember that Japan already manages to kill some 400 whales a year for "scientific" purposes. And Norway ignores the ban altogether.

There is no case for scrapping the moratorium. And the safeguards proposed by pro-whaling nations cannot be relied upon. It is the job of anti-whaling nations on the commission - including Britain - to see off this latest threat to the existence of these beautiful - and still endangered - creatures.

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