Whalers may get boost from world panel vote

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Japan and Norway, two nations that have refused to give up large-scale whaling despite widespread condemnation, are on the cusp of gaining control of the international commission that since 1986 has strictly limited whale hunting in an effort to rebuild the population of the world’s largest creatures.

The impending shift, which will be on display when the International Whaling Commission convenes on the island of St. Kitts for its annual meeting June 16, has alarmed environmentalists and officials from countries that oppose commercial whaling, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

They note that in recent years, Japan has recruited at least 19 countries – many from West Africa and the Caribbean – to join the commission and support expanded whaling.

“Most Americans think the whales have been saved,” said Gregory Wetstone, director of U.S. operations for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an advocacy group.

“These populations cannot sustain the kind of pressure that industrial-scale whaling can bring.”

In interviews, senior fisheries officials from a half-dozen countries, including the United States and Japan, said the commission will face a decisive moment next month.

With 66 or so members – the number shifts depending on which countries show up and pay their dues – the body that has regulated whaling for more than 50 years may, for the first time, be narrowly dominated by countries that support expanded whale hunts.

A shift by the commission to a more pro-whaling stance, Mr. Wetstone said, could halt its conservation work and encourage Japan, Norway and Iceland – which have already announced that they plan to increase their current catch of 2,395 whales a year to 3,215 by 2008 – to expand their activities in the coming years, with other, smaller countries possibly joining the hunt.

Just last week, five Japanese government research ships set out to hunt for 260 whales in northwestern Pacific seas.

No one questions that for more than 100 years, commercial whaling devastated whale stocks around the world, leaving many species in jeopardy of disappearing altogether.

But conservation campaigns, books, recordings and the popularity of whale-watching tours have given the marine mammals a mythic status in the American psyche, and the United States now lists seven endangered species in domestic waters and one in foreign waters.

Blue whales, which are twice the size of the largest dinosaur, numbered 250,000 in 1920 but have declined by 96 percent since then. Fin whales, which used to number 600,000, have declined by 92 percent.

Some species have made gains in recent years: Minke whales, for example, now number in the several hundred thousands. That is the species whale hunting countries generally pursue: Norway took 639, and Japan harpooned 853 minke and 10 endangered fin whales.

Source: Washington Post