SHIMONOSEKI, Japan - A tradition dating back millennia, the Eskimo whale hunt, could be outlawed in the United States because of a measure passed at the urging of Japan to punish the U.S. government for its opposition to commercial whaling.
In a 30-14 vote, the International Whaling Commission today turned down requests from the United States and Russia to renew quotas that allow their native peoples to kill whales. The ban would begin in 2003.
"This year the United States delegation has a message to take back home - end the hypocrisy," said Masayuki Komatsu, a senior member of Japan's delegation. "The U.S. requests for quotas are a complete double standard."
The vote was the latest showdown at what was perhaps the 48-nation IWC's most dispute-ridden annual conference ever, and has deepened doubts about the body's ability to function effectively in the future.
Rolland Schmitten, head of the U.S. delegation at the meeting in Shimonoseki, Japan, complained that the vote showed how political gamesmanship has hurt the commission's work.
"We are extremely disappointed," said Schmitten. The U.S. was appealing the decision, and Schmitten said he would consult with Washington to determine if there were other options for getting the quotas extended.
The U.S. and Russian requests would have set catch limits for the next five years. It was the first time such a request had been turned down since the commission began ruling on so-called "aboriginal whaling" in the early 1970s.
U.S. delegates had asked to allow the American Makah Indians to catch four gray whales a year and the Eskimos, also known as Alaskan Inuit, to catch 56 bowhead whales. Russia had requested 120 gray whales for the Chukotka people living in its northeast.
The Makah stopped whaling in the early 1900s, but Eskimo hunting continued. The Makah killed their first gray whale in more than 70 years in 1999, after gray whales were taken off the endangered species list.
Japanese officials opposed the requests after Japan was denied the right to coastal whaling. Japan's request to allow four coastal whaling towns to catch a total of 50 minke whales from nearby waters was rejected on Tuesday.
American officials say aboriginal whaling differs from Japan's coastal whaling because there is no commercial benefit.
Gennady Inankeuyas, 42, a Chukotka tribesman, said his people depend on the whale meat for nutrition and fat.
"It will leave us hungry. We hope our government won't leave our families without food," Inankeuyas said through an interpreter after the vote.
The rejection was likely to doom similar requests from Denmark and St. Vincent and the Grenadines for much smaller catches.
It wasn't clear if the flap over aboriginal hunting would delay discussions on other topics, including whale killing methods and scientific whaling permits, but they were also certain to be fractious.
Later Thursday, a Japanese proposal to lift the global ban on commercial whaling imposed in 1986 was rejected by a 25-16 vote.
Japan, which claims whale populations have recovered enough to sustain limited catches, has been trying to get the ban lifted, but admitted it only pushed for the vote to express its dissatisfaction with the commission's anti-whaling bent.
"I expected the outcome. It was not the first time our proposal failed," said Japan's Komatsu.
The IWC's scientific committee lists several whales species whose populations could increase even with limited hunting. A few nations, led by Sweden, have proposed a system of trade controls and DNA checks on meat that they say would leave the ban intact while putting in place tough regulatory measures.
Opponents, including the United States, counter that the proposal would pave the way for a return to whaling.